Southern Command Aids Search for Narcotraffickers
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
IQUITOS, Peru, Jan. 9, 1998 Rusted tin- and thatched-roof huts rise on narrow stilts at the edges of the jungle and along the banks of the brown Amazon River. Boats of varying sizes -- but none of them large -- creak against crude docks. Young men in long rowboats drift slowly, some holding bamboo fishing poles, others just staring silently toward shore. None pays heed to the Peruvian naval patrol boat carving a deep wake as it diesels up the middle of this quarter-mile-wide stretch of the 2,000-mile-long Amazon.
Nor have narcotraffickers had to worry much about the federales interfering with the shipment of Peruvian coca north to Colombian plants where they process tons of cocaine. With U.S. assistance, however, South Americans -- Peruvians, in particular -- are applying increasing pressure.
Operations to stem the drug trade have met with the most success in Peru, officials said. Peruvian coca plantations yield the bulk of cocaine flowing into the United States, but the combined efforts of the United States and Peruvian governments have reduced the coca harvest 18 percent.
"We've broken the [drug traffickers'] air bridge into pieces and impeded their ability for long hauls," said Army Lt. Col. Byron Conover, a U.S. Southern Command spokesman with extensive experience in Central and South America. "They used to be able to move coca over long distances from the growing regions of Peru to Colombia processing plants, then up through Mexico or directly into the United States. Now, we've forced them to take small hops."
Not only have the routes changed, Conover said, but also the methods of transit. Today, traffickers are as likely to try moving their illicit cargo by surface, and in particular, by boats. In Peru, DoD efforts include aerial tracking and surveillance, ground-based radar and training assistance.
"Our current role in the drug program is important but discreet," Conover said. "We're not the lead agency -- our Department of Justice law enforcement agencies take the lead. We support them and the participating host nations."
The United States can't afford to concentrate in any one area, Conover said. New to tackling the drug problem at its source, however, the U.S. Southern Command has focused its efforts in Peru, the largest producer of coca, from which cocaine is derived. "The Peruvians have demonstrated a national will to work with us," he said.
At a remote outpost along the Amazon River, a small cadre of U.S. Military Advisory Assistance Group members are training Peruvian naval and law enforcement specialists who in turn will train their agencies to battle drug traffickers using the river. Training includes river operations in small patrol boats, of which more than two dozen are being prepared for drug interdictions. Students also learn to conduct jungle warfare and how to stay alive eating various fruits and drawing rain water stored naturally by certain plants and trees.
"We train the trainers," said Army Col. Manuel Fuentes, the assistance group commander based in Peru's capital city, Lima. "They, in turn, train Peruvian naval [including coast guard] and police specialists."
The school is still growing and doesn't have its full contingent of students or training resources. When fully operational, Fuentes said, about 60 students will graduate every six weeks.
At the riverine training center, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Fred Jones is helping develop the curriculum and "advising the host nation on how to get this thing off the ground." "The United States and Peru have high hopes," he said. "In 1996, the [Peruvian] coast guard confiscated 400 pounds of coca. Last year, using just seven speedboats, it captured 7 tons."
Also in Iquitos -- and at one other Peruvian location and two sites in Colombia -- DoD operates relocatable ground-based radar sites to provide a surveillance blanket over transit sites along the borders shared by Peru, Colombia and Brazil. But the radar's impact at times is indirect, Conover said.
"For example, the ground-based radars may well have had no direct part in the last few months in downing an aircraft," he said. "After a while, the traffickers know where the radar sites are. As a result, they know that's an area they have to avoid, so they go to another area where it's more difficult for them to transit and where we can better track them."
Plus, DoD moves the radar units around. For example, two years ago, the Iquitos unit operated by Detachment 4, 24th Operations Group, Howard Air Force Base, Panama, wasn't in Iquitos.
"They are positioned to properly interact with other detection assets -- interceptor aircraft, tracking aircraft, and relocatable over-the-horizon radars in the Chesapeake Bay area and Texas," Conover said. A third over-the-horizon site will be placed in Puerto Rico in the near future, he said, to provide surveillance not only of the transit zone but the source area -- "where we get them moving and flying out," the colonel said.
Other U.S. resources employed against drug traffickers include high-altitude aerial surveillance, satellite imagery of cultivation areas and radio monitoring.
"Our approach is to layer our radar efforts with local capabilities, including air traffic control networks," Conover said. "We take cues from their intelligence sources and from our aircraft overflying the drug zones."
Active duty and reserve component Air Force members staff the ground-based radar sites. At Iquitos, six Peruvian enlisted controllers complement 33 U.S. airmen.
The American airmen serve 90-day tours of duty, while the commander and key staff pull six-month rotations. They work, sleep, eat and shower in air-conditioned Quonset-shaped tents that block out the sweltering jungle heat and frequently heavy rain. The compound is heavily fortified with concertina wire, tall watchtowers and sandbagged bunkers. An array of radar scanners and satellite dishes scan the skies above the vast Peruvian rainforest, while the Amazon flows by silently.
Whether impeding air routes or tracking down traffickers in the jungle and along the river, the U.S.-South American team makes slow but steady progress.
"We can never expect to eliminate drug use and smuggling entirely," Conover conceded. "But we can reduce the amount of cocaine being illegally smuggled into the United States. Stopping the flow of illegal drugs takes demand reduction, alternative development [of crop-growing regions], interdiction, and legal and justice system modifications by the participating nations."