General's Peru Trip Emphasizes Counterdrug Mission
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
LIMA, Peru, Dec. 3, 1997 As Marine Gen. Charles Wilhelm began a four-day visit here Nov. 30, the most pressing concern of his command was countering the flow of illegal drugs into the United States.
Operations to stem the drug trade have met with the most success here, said the commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command. Peruvian coca plantations yield the bulk of cocaine flowing into the United States, he said, but the combined efforts of the United States and Peruvian governments have reduced the coca harvest 18 percent.
"The Peruvians have been aggressive in pursuing their counternarcotics objectives, and we have some pretty ambitious programs under way now," Wilhelm said. With the drugrunners' air bridge mostly collapsed, he said, the United States and Peru are turning their focus to the rivers. While here, Wilhelm planned to visit a drug interdiction training center along the Amazon. Officials suspect traffickers use the river as an alternate transportation route.
The command also established a ground-based radar facility in Iquitos to help detect drug traffickers.
Southern Command officials quickly point out, however, the military isn't the lead player in counterdrug operations. For example, a U.S. Agency for International Development alternative economic development program is expected to further reduce coca harvests in the region. And the apprehension and conviction of drug traffickers remains a mostly law enforcement activity. The command's roles include detection and monitoring, sharing intelligence, logistics support, communications, planning assistance, and training and equipping.
"We support other U.S. and host nation agencies, particularly their law enforcement programs, and help out where appropriate," said Army Lt. Col. Byron Conover, a command spokesman. He noted the command receives about one-third of the total federal counterdrug budget, or about 25 percent of DoD drug funds.
DoD recently revised the Unified Command Plan to extend the command's area of responsibility to cover both the source and transit zones (South and Central America and the Caribbean) of the Western Hemisphere drug trade. "This gives Southern Command single-agency responsibility for counterdrug operations, which should make these operations much more effective," he said.
Because a large percentage of Latin American nations are involved to some degree in the drug trade, Conover said, antidrug efforts can't be concentrated on any one area. Too often, progress in one area, such as Peru, is offset by new abuses elsewhere. For example, successful efforts to target drug kingpins in Colombia led to an increase in the number and power of Mexican cartels, according to a Southern Command briefing. And increased aerial surveillance of the Peru-Colombia air bridge led to more river trafficking as well as increased movement of drugs through "spillover" countries.
Drug smuggling will continue as long as U.S. domestic demand exists for narcotics, Conover noted. "There's no silver bullet solution," he said. "It will take a combination of reduced demand, interdiction and alternative development to successfully counter illegal drugs."