Pubdate: Sun, 23 Mar 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Note: Special correspondents Felipe Paucar in Tingo Maria and Adriana 
Leon in Lima contributed to this report.
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


After a lull, production is rising, feeding demand in Brazil, Europe 
and East Asia, officials say. With flashy cartel men replaced by a 
piecemeal network, the trafficking is harder to combat.

SANTA LUCIA, PERU -- Rustic mule trains ferry vital chemicals to 
clandestine jungle labs.

Booby-trapped fields ward off intruders.

Trekkers never seen on the Discovery Channel backpack the prized 
finished product on epic journeys from steamy Amazon hideaways to 
chilly highland distribution depots.

And a shadowy remnant of the notorious Shining Path rebel army, led 
by a charismatic man named Artemio, uses its muscle to pocket a 
fortune in a sinister protection racket.

Peru's cocaine industry, the world's largest and most violent in the 
late 1980s and early 1990s, is again on the upswing. Plots of coca 
bushes, whose leaves yield cocaine, have increased by about one-third 
since 1999, to about 127,000 acres, according to Peruvian and United 
Nations estimates.

And this time, the traffickers may be more difficult to combat 
because the flashy kingpins from Colombia have been replaced by a 
piecemeal network, a sort of gold rush of international entrepreneurs.

Production is still well below the record highs of the early 1990s, 
and neighboring Colombia has surpassed Peru as the global cocaine 
leader, supplying 90% of the U.S. market, according to the State 
Department. Moreover, President Alan Garcia is a staunch foe of the drug.

"Peru will not resign itself to be a country of narco-trafficking," 
vowed the pro-U.S. Garcia, who took office in 2006.

But Peru, the world's No. 2 supplier, feeds a booming demand in 
Brazil, Europe, East Asia and as far away as Australia, authorities 
say. The density of coca plantings has doubled in some cases, experts 
say, and the fertilizer-nourished leaf now yields a greater 
proportion of cocaine alkaloid, the active ingredient in cocaine.

A wave of drug-related lawlessness -- assassinations, ambushes, 
threats against prosecutors -- has fanned fears of the kind of 
narco-instability that afflicts Colombia and Mexico. The Tijuana 
cartel is suspected in the 2006 slaying in Lima, the Peruvian 
capital, of a judge hearing a case against an alleged cartel capo.

And renewed militancy among the peasants who grow the coca leaf has 
sparked road closures and violent clashes with law enforcement officers.

The Garcia administration initially agreed to suspend eradication 
efforts, a mainstay of the U.S.-backed anti-drug policy. But Garcia 
later reversed course and even suggested that clandestine 
laboratories be raided and bombed. With U.S. aid that totals about 
$50 million a year, Peru has trained and deployed hundreds of 
anti-drug police officers.

"If we don't kill the danger now," Garcia declared, Peru could be 
confronted with "an insurgency as large as occurred in our 
neighboring country" -- a reference to Colombia, where cocaine 
underwrites guerrilla armies.

Former Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi has warned of the 
corrosive effect of a burgeoning drug trade. "Its tentacles always 
reach to the halls of the highest authority," he said.

During the 1990s, U.S.-backed enforcement efforts chased much of the 
coca trade to Colombia. Now, some say, the wheel is turning: Pressure 
in Colombia is shifting production here.

But today's tableau is distinct from the brazen scenario of the late 
1980s and early '90s.

Gone are the Colombian drug barons swaggering around in opulent 
jungle redoubts such as the nearby town of Uchiza, once dubbed the 
world cocaine capital, with its gaudy discos and bordellos. Replacing 
the Colombians is a multinational network that reaches from the 
Amazon basin to a globalized market.

"We're up against an army of ants," said Gen. Miguel Hidalgo, who 
heads Peru's national anti-drug police.

Authorities here have identified smuggling rings from Mexico, 
Colombia, Brazil, Nigeria and the Dominican Republic, among other 
countries. A Peruvian gang allegedly headed by a petite woman known 
as Floricienta (after the lead character in an Argentine soap opera 
of the same name) is said to control a massive chemical-supply network.

Today, Peruvian traffickers produce pure cocaine for export, not the 
paste that was once regularly shipped to Colombia for final processing.

U.S.-supported police efforts have shut down clandestine landing 
strips and pinched road access to the isolated planting districts on 
the Andes' lush eastern flanks. But ever-adaptable traffickers have 
expanded cultivation zones while employing pack animals and 
mochileros -- backpackers -- to maintain the illicit flow.

Negotiating extreme terrain, low-tech legions use mules to haul in 
the essential chemical precursors, and cocaine-laden backpackers 
stealthily travel age-old Inca trails beneath the canopy, creating 
invisible contraband thoroughfares.

"Everything is now done on a small scale, a lot of little pieces," 
said Col. Whitman Rios, head of special operations at the 
U.S.-supported anti-drug base here in the Upper Huallaga Valley, 
Peru's most notorious production zone.

This is an area of hypnotic natural beauty, where the mighty Huallaga 
River meanders through luxuriant hills and sumptuous flatlands like a 
chocolate-colored pretzel in a vast sea of green. From the air, there 
is no hint of the battles raging amid the verdant expanses.

On the ground, government forces deploy against targets gleaned from 
satellite imagery and informants. Then, Vietnam-era U.S. helicopters 
ferry in "eradicators" armed with metal tools designed to yank coca 
plants from their roots. Unlike Colombia, Peru bans chemical 
spraying; it is all done by hand.

Coca growers, known as cocaleros, have devised a crafty 
countermeasure: Some plants are rigged with homemade bombs; rat traps 
serve as triggering devices.

"I reached for the bush and it exploded in my face," said Jose Angel 
Solano Gomez, 40, an eradicator who lost his left eye and suffered 
other injuries in an encounter with a pipe bomb attached to a coca 
plant. He says he was thrown three yards into the air.

In the last two years, 73 eradication workers have been wounded and 
two killed, the government says. More than two dozen police officers 
have died in drug-related violence.

Flanked by armed escorts, eradicators set out in the stifling heat, 
like an odd amalgam of ancient and futurist warriors: They don 
helmets, eye-protection gear and bulletproof vests and, when needed, 
carry 10-foot lances that provide some distance from booby-trapped 
shrubs. Paramedics tote antivenin for snakebites and medication for 
blast and gunshot wounds. Teams of U.S.-trained bomb dogs sniff the fields.

"The campesinos say we're taking away their livelihoods," said Hugo 
Gozar, 50, a veteran eradicator, referring to the farmworkers.

Throughout the Andean Amazon basin, the imperative of the marketplace 
pushes peasants to the dependable coca plant. About 65,000 Peruvian 
families make a living off the coca leaf and trafficking, according 
to a U.S. State Department report released last month.

Alternative crops such as oil palm and cacao have met with some 
success, U.S. officials say. But many impoverished farmers insist 
that no legal product can replace the myth-shrouded bush and its 
profitable harvests.

"Here, there is no alternative to coca," said Juan Leon Echegaray, a 
father of six and a cocalero near Tingo Maria. "They come and they 
offer us a few chickens and some cacao. How am I to survive on that?"

Despite the cocaleros' hostility, authorities managed to eradicate 
about 27,000 acres of coca last year in the Upper Huallaga. But that 
only kept pace with new plantings, often in previously eradicated zones.

Many cocaleros have migrated to ever-more-remote patches of the 
Apurimac and Ene river valleys known in narco-parlance as "liberated zones."

"The narcos and their sicarios [hired killers] act in these zones 
with complete impunity," said Rospigliosi, the former interior 
minister. "They've bought off local officials and have complete control."

The flourishing narco trade, authorities say, is stimulating a fresh 
incarnation of the Maoist rebel group Sendero Luminoso, or Shining 
Path, which terrorized the nation before being beaten down in the 
1990s. Shining Path was never vanquished in coca country, where the 
rebels have long imposed "taxes" on traffickers, timber harvesters and others.

The Sendero band along the Huallaga is led by the elusive "Comrade" 
Artemio, a veteran guerrilla who commands somewhere between a few 
dozen and more than 100 armed men, authorities say.

Following the blueprint of Colombian guerrillas, police say, Shining 
Path cadres are deep into the coca trade, ambushing police, targeting 
eradicators and killing suspected informers. The guerrillas also 
provide rolling security for cocaine-laden backpackers and secret 
drug labs, where handwritten signs warn recruits that loose lips can 
cost them their heads, literally.

Like their Colombian counterparts, authorities say, senderistas are 
integrating vertically: Insurgents have moved into the production 
side, planting coca, processing leaves and smuggling.

"Shining Path isn't about ideology anymore," said Gen. Juan Zarate, 
who heads Peru's eradication effort. "Now it's all about the narco-business."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom