Pubdate: Tue, 20 Feb 2001
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Jared Kotler, Associated Press Writer


BARRANCO MINAS, Colombia:  Troops making a late-night descent on an 
airstrip in the Amazon didn't get the men they were looking for: a fugitive 
Brazilian drug lord and the Colombian guerrilla commander who allegedly 
sold him cocaine for arms.

But the military said the commando-style operation near the Brazilian 
border helped to expose a cocaine-for-guns operation fueling the country's 
37-year war and demonstrating the guerrillas' deepening involvement in the 
international drug trade.

Eager to show their commitment to a U.S.-backed drug war, the armed forces 
flew journalists and Gen. Peter Pace, the commander of U.S. military forces 
in Latin America, into the area Monday.

The military gave the visitors a briefing and a tour of previously 
uncharted coca fields and one of the cocaine-processing laboratories 
discovered in recent days.

Also on display were Brazilian passports, confiscated cash, seized 
satellite phones, and notebooks recording supposed cocaine-for-arms 
transactions between Brazilian traffickers and the Revolutionary Armed 
Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Six Brazilians are among the 29 people arrested so far in Operation Black 
Cat, launched on Feb. 11. One is said to be the girlfriend of Luiz Fernando 
da Costa, a fugitive Brazilian considered one of his country's top 
narcotics traffickers.

As of Tuesday, the troops said they'd discovered airstrips, 12 
laboratories, deserted rebel camps and 25,000 acres of uncharted coca. The 
area was capable of producing 2 tons of cocaine weekly, officials said.

The FARC has admitted to "taxing" peasant farmers who grow coca crops, but 
denies it smuggles cocaine or works directly with international drug 

U.S. officials, however, have increasingly labeled the group a "cartel" and 
Mexico's Attorney General has alleged the FARC supplied cocaine to a 
Mexican syndicate in return for cash and weapons.

The charges are uncomfortable for President Andres Pastrana, who is trying 
to negotiate peace with the guerrillas and refuses to characterize the FARC 
as "narco-traffickers."

Barranco Minas, a tiny village in southern Guainia State, is only 115 miles 
north of Brazil and about the same distance from Venezuela to the east. Its 
proximity to sparsely-patrolled borders make the village an ideal 
trafficking platform, officials said.

Nineteen illegal drug flights were intercepted in airspace near Barranco 
Minas in the past year. Charred pieces of two small planes destroyed by air 
force fighters litter the thick woods beside the village's ample grass 

The region is a known stronghold of the FARC's 16th front, a unit believed 
by the military to be dedicated almost exclusively to generating 
drug-related revenues for the 16,000-strong guerrilla army.

According to the military, expert pilots working for Da Costa were flying 
in guns, cash and sophisticated radios for the FARC and flying out cocaine. 
Records seized here allegedly document at least seven cocaine flights this 
year, and drop-offs of 2,800 weapons for the FARC, mainly 9-milimeter 
pistols and AK-47 assault rifles purchased in international arms markets.

"This operation clearly demonstrates the ties between drug trafficking and 
the FARC," said army special forces Col. Alejandro Navas.

In the assault launched Feb. 11, some 3,200 special forces troops were 
helicoptered into Barranco de Minas and surrounding jungle. There rebels 
were nowhere to be seen, and there have been no reported clashes.

U.S.-trained counternarcotics battalions based further to the west in 
Putumayo province were not involved in the raid. But Gen. Pace's presence 
underscored the growing U.S. role in Colombia under a $1.3 billion aid 
package, and the murky line here between drug-fighting and counterinsurgency.

After receiving a classified military briefing inside the village's 
one-room library, Pace said he believed "the FARC and narco-trafficking 
were one and the same in this region."

While touting a successful operation, military officials admitted they had 
hoped to snare Da Costa, known in Brazil by the nickname Fernando Beira 
Mar, and the local FARC commander, a key figure in the rebel group.

A restaurant owner in Barranco Minas said the Brazilian, who has been on 
the run since 1997 and was believed to be living in Paraguay, moved into 
the village about a year ago and opened a dental clinic.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom