Declaring a war to the finish, a senior Bolivian official said today that his government would pursue its newly launched attack on narcotics traffickers until all cocaine processors and dealers in the country have been eliminated.
But the official, Interior Minister Fernando Barthelemy, stressed that the success of the antidrug operation, which begins this week with support from the U.S. military, would continue to depend on international assistance.
In the first public confirmation by the Bolivian government of the operation, Barthelemy told reporters here that he regretted the premature disclosure of the raids planned against clandestine cocaine processing laboratories. But he said that the strikes, which reportedly will begin in the next day or two in jungle areas in northeastern Bolivia, have been delayed by "logistical problems" since the arrival Monday of U.S. Army helicopters. He did not elaborate.
Six U.S. helicopters with about 160 U.S. Army support personnel and 15 agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have been transferred to a base of operations said to be a ranch near the town of Trinidad that once belonged to a reputed trafficker.
From there, the helicopters are to be used to ferry members of Bolivian special antinarcotics police units on search and destroy missions against cocaine laboratories hidden in the Beni region, a lowlands area filled with rivers and lush vegetation.
Barthelemy emphasized that the operation would be led by Bolivian authorities. He said the U.S. military's participation would be of a "technical character," limited to transporting the police and maintaining the helicopters and communications equipment provided by the U.S. Southern Command in Panama.
Although Washington officials have indicated that the operation would probably last two to three months, Barthelemy suggested that the American involvement could run well beyond that.
"The goal of the government is to move ahead with a permanent and constant program," he said when asked how long he expected U.S. soldiers and aircraft to remain in Bolivia. "To the extent that this support team is needed until the complete eradication of drug trafficking, they are going to stay in this country."
The minister said his government was committed to destroying cocaine processing facilities in "all parts" of Bolivia, but he was reluctant to estimate how long this might take.
"This sort of objective is very risky," he said at a press conference held in Government Palace. "We don't know how the traffickers will react."
A communique issued today by the Information Ministry characterized the raids as "the first step in an operation of great breadth . . . aimed fundamentally at repressing cocaine manufacturing in its protected locations, which up to now have been inaccessible . . . due to the precariousness of Bolivian police resources."
Given the lack of aircraft, most of the actions conducted until now by Bolivia's U.S.-financed antinarcotics police force have been confined to the ground. They have largely involved seizure of shipments of coca paste along roads in the Chapare, a forested region at the eastern base of the Andes where much of Bolivia's cultivation of coca leaves takes place.
Bolivian authorities have complained that the $1.5 million which the United States has provided for police action -- out of a total $4 million in narcotics assistance funding for Bolivia this fiscal year -- is insufficient. Bolivian President Victor Paz Estenssoro has said his country requires at least $100 million to reduce the number of coca leaf plantations and to undertake effective police action