For the first time, Peru and Colombia, with the assistance of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, have joined forces to stage a major operation against coca-processing laboratories and clandestine airports in the northeastern Peruvian jungle.
For Peruvian President Alan Garcia, it was more than a breakthrough in the fight against the narcotics trade. Garcia, who took office in late July, has staked part of his political future on a campaign to stamp out government corruption and clean up a police force that has proved ineffective in fighting both crime and guerrilla forces.
While Peru is trying to cut an unorthodox deal with creditors without the intervention of the International Monetary Fund to refinance its $14 billion debt and simultaneously rekindle economic activity -- both of which show few signs of quick results -- Garcia needs to show progress on other fronts.
"One of the few things that Garcia can offer that does not cost money is moralization, and it can eventually have a real impact on government efficiency and productivity," said Carlos Amat y Leon, director of the University of the Pacific research center.
The Peruvian-Colombian operation, code-named Condor, targeted major processing and distribution sites in Peru. In a dawn airborne assault in helicopters provided by Colombian police, an elite 60-man Peruvian police unit took over the main target -- a large drug-processing laboratory complete with airstrip -- on Tuesday. Two policemen were wounded. Other units continued to hit three other labs during the next four days while Colombian police covered the border to cut off escape routes.
The operation took place 700 miles northeast of Lima, near the Colombian city of Leticia, known as a major cocaine distribution point. The clandestine landing strips had been sighted six weeks ago during DEA overflights and the information passed on to Peruvian drug police. Peruvian police sources say that there are 250 clandestine landing strips in the country, 100 of them in the trackless Amazon basin.
The traffickers had made little effort to hide their operation. The major airfield, 2,000 feet long and 100 feet wide, was paved with concrete. Only a half dozen commercial jungle airports have paved strips. Five Cessna aircraft with computerized navigation equipment were caught on the ground.
For living quarters, the traffickers had six dormitories capable of housing 100 persons each. The processing lab was capable of refining 500 pounds of cocaine a week. Installations included diesel generators, water pumps, hydraulic presses and drying facilities. Underground warehouses were used for storage.
Considering the size of the investment in the main site, the Peruvian police have decided to turn it into a police base to maintain a permanent presence in the area. The total Operation Condor haul, including equipment, installations and drugs was $500 million, according to the head of the Peruvian narcotics police.
Since the Colombian government intensified its cocaine crackdown last year, traffickers have fled to Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and other countries. Peru previously had been a supplier of the coca leaves, processed into cocaine paste that was then smuggled to Colombia for refining into cocaine.
The Operation Condor drug bust was a welcome victory in what has been a frustrating year in Peru's war on narcotics. The activities of Maoist guerrillas in the Upper Huallaga Valley, where most coca leaves are grown, have all but aborted efforts to strangle the cocaine trade at its roots. Production has tripled over the past two years.
A delegation from the House Select Committee on Drug Abuse and Control, led by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), came through Lima this month on a Latin American tour and told Garcia that if Peru did not move quickly toward producing a convincing program, it stood to lose at least part of fiscal 1986 antinarcotics funding. Peru is to receive $4.4 million in antidrug aid. Operation Condor was already under way when the congressional delegation delivered its message.
Garcia has moved to increase police effectiveness by signing into law a congressional authorization to revamp the 65,000-strong police force; to purge officers involved in corruption, abuse of authority and human rights violations, and to reallocate budgetary resources within 60 days.
Police morale and discipline have dropped sharply during the past three years. Feuding between police units has led to gunfights and street brawls.
For the past month, public attention has been riveted on a drug scandal that has tarnished further the police's image. Following an explosion in a cocaine laboratory in a plush Lima residential neighborhood, evidence surfaced that Reynaldo Rodriguez Lopez, acknowledged as one of the top 10 cocaine traffickers in the country, had close links with high-ranking officers of the investigative police and even members of the government of former president Fernando Belaunde Terry.