Pubdate: Mon, 03 Dec 2012
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: John Lyons


TABATINGA, Brazil-Two Brazilian police bolted from a helicopter in
Peru's Amazon jungle on a recent day with a squad of Peruvian
commandos. Cracks of gunfire shook the forest before the group
captured and destroyed a secret cocaine lab.

The Brazilians had the legal status of unarmed observers during the
Aug. 19 raid led by Peru's elite antidrug police.

But both Brazilians carried assault rifles and faced hostile fire. The
lab was in Peru, but the raiders flew from a Brazilian airport in a
chopper running on Brazilian fuel to hit a target provided by a
Brazilian-paid informant. From its Amazon border with Peru to its
bustling cities, Brazil is getting drawn deeper into a drug war as
surging cocaine use turns it into the world's biggest market after the
U.S. It is a surprise since Brazilian politicians once criticized
aggressive antidrug strategies espoused by the U.S. as causing more
harm than good.

Now, Brazil is adopting a controversial U.S. tactic: reaching across
borders to stop cocaine at the source.

"Brazil is crossing a threshold that it hasn't even come close to in
the past," said Douglas Farah, a national security consultant who
advises the U.S. Department of Defense on Latin America and drug
issues. Conventional wisdom is that Latin America is shifting away
from the U.S.-backed war on drugs. In April, longtime U.S. drug allies
such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos used the annual Summit
of the Americas to call the U.S.'s 40-year Latin American drug war a
failure and demand a debate on alternatives such as decriminalization.
But the case of Brazil suggests Latin America's drug war is expanding,
not shrinking. Though Colombia and Mexico have doubts about
U.S.-backed drug interdiction strategies, neither country has altered
course. Meantime, Brazil, Latin America's biggest economy by far, is
becoming a participant after decades spent mostly on the sidelines.

President Dilma Rousseff is deploying up to 10,000 soldiers at a time
to drug smuggling hot spots. Brazil also agreed to buy 14 Israeli-made
drone aircraft to search for traffickers from the sky. The Federal
Police are hiring 30% more agents and equipping them with 1,000 new
assault rifles, plus river launches and aircraft. Partly as a result,
the number of drug defendants jailed in Brazil has doubled since 2006.

Brazil's turnabout reflects the globalization of the cocaine business
as U.S. cocaine use dropped 40% over the past decade. Drug traffickers
responded by pioneering new markets in Europe and in developing
nations such as Brazil, Argentina and South Africa.

In Sao Paulo, drug-related violence and the spread of open air markets
for cheap crack cocaine have prompted politicians to call for action.
In Sao Paulo state, at least 90 military police have died so far this
year amid a showdown with local cocaine gangs.

"We are suffering the consequences of a lack of police on the border,"
Sao Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alkmin told reporters in October after a
particularly bloody seven-day stretch during which three police and 16
others were killed in the state.

The widening use of cocaine is attracting more countries to narcotics
enforcement, U.S. officials say.

"All of these negatives add up to a positive in terms of cooperation,"
said William Brownfield, who is the U.S.'s drug war ambassador in his
role as head of the State Dept.'s Bureau of International Narcotics
and Law Enforcement Affairs. "I am more optimistic about the
international effort now than at any time in the past because
narcotics trafficking has become so globalized that most countries see
a need to cooperate." Brazil's challenge is to stop cocaine on a vast
and sparsely populated border. It shares a 10,000-mile border with the
world's three main cocaine producers, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, as
well as the smuggling hub of Paraguay. The frontier with Bolivia alone
is longer than the U.S.-Mexico line. Brazil signed police cooperation
agreements with its neighbors to share intelligence, conduct joint
investigations and fund foreign operations. Senior Brazilian officials
emphasize that Brazilian police are prohibited from crossing the
border armed.

Doing so violates agreements with neighboring nations and could cause
a diplomatic incident if a Brazilian were injured outside the country,
or become involved in a deadly shoot out.

"This isn't our policy, which is to respect the sovereignty of our
neighbors. If it happened there, it was a mistake. If they entered
armed, the Peruvians could arrest them," said Oslain Santana, who
heads the organized crime division at the Brazil's Federal Police. But
some agents say privately that armed Brazilian agents sometimes do
cross the border, reflecting the all-hands-on-deck nature of drug
interdiction in dangerous regions where backup is far away and
international borderlines often unmarked.

The practice was visible in August when Brazil teamed with Peru for a
three-week joint operation to crack down on surging cocaine production
on Peru's side of the Javari River that separates the nations in the
Amazon. Peruvian police led operations on their side of the border.
But there was at least one armed Brazilian federal police among them
on each of two missions to destroy cocaine labs in Peru accompanied by
a Wall Street Journal reporter in August.

It was easy to see why. The Brazilian police were the locals with deep
knowledge of the jungle region and had cultivated the snitches who
knew where the labs were. The Peruvian commandos had flown in from
Lima. Brazil's cross-border drug engagement is a far cry from the
U.S., which has spent billions of dollars to operate anti-narcotics
bases in Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia over the years and engage in
controversial tactics such as helping countries shoot down suspected
drug planes. All the same, critics in Brazil fear the country's drug
war is crossing a dangerous line. The prospect of armed Brazilians in
other nations could cost Brazilian lives and damage diplomatic ties
with a region already wary of Brazil's rise, these critics say. They
also fear it simply won't work. "It won't have much of an effect,
because they can always build more labs," said Fernando Henrique
Cardoso, a former Brazilian president who has become a prominent
advocate for drug decriminalization.

Peru also is shifting to a more active battle against illicit drugs.
President Ollanta Humala campaigned on backing away from U.S.-backed
interdiction and even suggested he would halt U.S. funded coca
eradication. But once in office, he has acted differently. He became
concerned that rising cocaine production in Peru-partly to meet demand
in Brazil-could threaten his country's stability by funding terrorism.
These days the U.S. sees Mr. Humala a better drug ally than his
predecessors, U.S. policy analysts say.

Engagement by Peru and Brazil couldn't come at a better time for the
U.S. The rise of anti-U.S. leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela
has limited the U.S. ability to operate in the region. Bolivia
expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008.

But Brazil has warm relations with all these nations, and its police
can step into the cocaine enforcement void. Brazilian police working
with Bolivian police captured a major Brazilian trafficker operating
in Bolivia in 2010, for example.

During the August joint operation between Brazil and Peru, both sides
made their base at a Brazilian police base in nearby Tabatinga. A
Peruvian military helicopter landed with a squad of commandos. "We
need to prevent the Amazon from becoming another major cocaine zone,"
said Col. Cesar Arevalo, who commanded the Peruvian side of the
operation. A pair of U.S. DEA observers arrived for the operation's
final days. They spent their first day there mostly checking their
BlackBerrys in the Brazilian police command center while the
Brazilians and Peruvians were out on antidrug operations. Virtually
none of the cocaine produced here goes to the U.S. Instead, it goes to
Brazil, making it Brazil's problem, Brazilian police say.

An overflight with the Federal Police showed how big. Football-field
size farms of coca, cocaine's raw material, come into view along the
caramel-colored Javari. U.N. data suggest the Peruvian Amazon is the
globe's fastest expanding cocaine producing region.

Brazil and Peru are tackling the problem on a budget. Unlike Colombia,
which has fleets of Blackhawk helicopters paid for by the U.S., police
here flew missions in a 20-year-old Russian transport model, too big
for precise jungle landings.

The work can be deadly. In 2010, two Brazilian Federal Police were
killed by men with automatic weapons while searching a boat for
cocaine on the Brazilian side of the border. Their photos hang above
the door at the nearby police headquarters. On the photo of one of the
slain policemen, Mauro Lobo, someone has printed: "Press on. I am with

The deaths of the men deepened the resolve of the Brazilian Federal
Police. Brazilians worked closely with Peruvian police to capture most
of the drug gang allegedly behind the murders. The ties forged making
those arrests helped make bigger anti-narcotics operations possible.
Before one raid, Mauro Sposito lent Mr. Arevalo, the Peruvian colonel,
his personal weapon, a semiautomatic rifle preferable to automatic
ones because it helps you save ammo "when the adrenaline hits," he
explained. Peruvian police were in command and led all missions on
their side of the border. Brazilians provided most of the logistics,
including fuel. At a cocaine compound captured on Aug. 17, a Brazilian
police scientist listened as his Peruvian counterpart explained the
chemical processes taking place in Jacuzzi-size blue vat of diced coca
leaves steeping in gasoline. A coca and gasoline tea drained out
through PVC tubing into 50 gallon drums, a key step to make cocaine.

Investigators found clues to the local cocaine industry. Workers had
taped flashlights around its wooden structure, suggesting they worked
night shifts to keep up with demand. Long wooden spears with prongs
for catching fish in streams indicated the workers were local Indian
families. They lived in a thatched hut on stilts. Inside were a couple
of children's toys. Police suspect a Brazilian working with a
Colombian cocaine chemist owned the lab. "This is the new reality: The
Brazilians have the money, the Colombians have the know-how, and the
Peruvians are the poor S.O.Bs who do the work," a Peruvian
intelligence agent at the scene said.

Soon, a Peruvian demolitions expert, shot three times during 12 years
of service, strung pink detonator cord among the drums of gasoline and
promised to send the place up "like Hiroshima."

Both sides were at it again on the morning of Aug. 19, when a snitch
said that a drug lab linked to the gang behind the 2010 killings was
active on the Peruvian side of the Javari.

Mr. Sposito, a Brazilian federal police commander, punched the GPS
coordinates into Google Earth on his laptop and began discussing
logistics with Mr. Arevalo. A squad of Peruvian police in camouflage
piled into two pickup trucks and sped off toward their cavernous
helicopter. Along for the ride were two Brazilian police observers
carrying automatic weapons. Since the deaths of their colleagues,
Brazilian Federal Police have vowed not to be caught under-gunned
again. Everyone expected a shootout, and the men aboard seemed lost in
private thoughts.

The big chopper lumbered into the air and within a few moments had
crossed the Javari River into Peru. An informant, a local villager
disguised behind a black ski-mask, helped guide the pilots. Not used
to being airborne, he became disoriented by the birds-eye view.

Suddenly, they spotted the target, and within seconds a Peruvian
officer was shouting for the men to dive from the helicopter and take
cover in a coca field whipped by the giant helicopter rotors.

The police said they came under heavy fire. One Brazilian agent
theorized that the outnumbered traffickers opened fire before fleeing
because killing a policeman would bolster the gang's reputation in the
region. By day's end, the traffickers had been chased off and the lab

A version of this article appeared Dec. 3, 2012, on page A1 in some
U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Brazil
Reaches Across Border To Battle Source of Cocaine.
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