The Consortium

Peru's 'White Hats': Stained with Blood & Drugs

By Robert Parry

On the morning of March 2, 1990, two U.S. government helicopters flown by American pilots swooped low through Peru's lush-green coca-rich Upper Huallaga Valley. The copters were on a routine maintenance flight from an American-built base camp carved out of the jungle at Santa Lucia. The helicopters belonged to a joint U.S.-Peruvian anti-drug program, and they were heading toward the town of Tingo Maria for servicing.

But the helicopters' journey was interrupted when a Cessna 210 cut across their flight path near the town of Ramal. The pilots suspected that the Cessna was smuggling drugs, so they gave chase. Apparently oblivious to the helicopters in pursuit, the Cessna's pilot slid his plane into a landing pattern aiming for a roadway where trees had been cleared out on either side. The road was one of hundreds of crude landing strips that dot the South American jungles.

What made this landing strip noteworthy to the Americans, however, was that it was guarded not by drug lords or by leftist guerrillas, but by Peruvian government soldiers. Spotting the U.S. helicopters trailing the plane, the soldiers frantically waved at the Cessna's pilot not to land. The plane revved its engines and pulled up. Then, as the U.S. helicopters passed over the landing strip, one of the helicopter gunners shouted a warning that the soldiers were firing from the ground.

Later that day, when the helicopters were on their return flight from Tingo Maria to Santa Lucia, the same Peruvian army unit shot at the helicopters a second time. The helicopters again escaped unharmed, but the Peruvian army had sent the Americans an unmistakable message: to keep their noses out of the army's business, even when that business was collaborating with drug traffickers moving coca paste into the pipeline that eventually would end on the streets of the United States.

The incident at Ramal was just one of many moments of secret diplomatic tension between the Americans and the Peruvians in the early 1990s, as Washington shifted its rationale for counter-insurgency in Latin America from the Cold War to the drug war.

Like similar cases, the evidence of Peruvian government complicity in the drug trade was played down. The State Department did fire off a protest cable, but it was kept secret. Quietly, four of the army officers involved in the incident received slaps on the wrist and the local commander was transferred. The politicians in Lima did not want the shooting to interfere with President Bush's plans to spend $35 million a year to build up the Peruvian army. Also, for political reasons, neither Washington nor Lima wanted to disrupt the images of the Peruvian army as the anti-drug good guys and the leftist guerrillas as "narco-terrorist" bad guys.

As American counter-narcotics agents in the field knew, however, the truth was far more complex, especially in places such as the Upper Huallaga Valley where 90 percent of the economy revolved around the drug trade. They knew that the army was a big part of the problem.

No White Hats

When the Peruvian army stormed the Japanese ambassador's compound on April 22, freeing 71 hostages and killing 14 leftist guerrillas who had seized the building four months earlier, I was reminded of the incident at Ramal. As the U.S. media hailed the raid's dramatic success, I recalled, too, an interview that I had in 1990 with one American military man who was fighting Peruvian drug trafficking. He recognized that neither the government nor the guerrillas wore white hats.

I was a national correspondent for Newsweek at the time, and the military man thought the U.S. media should understand the complexities on the ground. He was worried that the drug war was becoming just another cover for protecting a corrupt political status quo while doing little to stop the flow of cocaine to the United States.

"We're going back to what we know best," the military man said, "how to fight commies." He predicted glumly that even if leftist guerrillas could be crushed, "the army's not going to fight the drug trade." He had witnessed the under-paid Peruvian troops using their rotations in the valley to line their pockets with drug money, a process that made many individual officers and soldiers rich.

The U.S. military man explained, too, that market forces had more to do with who collaborated with the drug lords than politics. He said the smugglers would pay off the army and the police for protection until their demands for higher and higher bribes caused the drug lords to shift their operations to territory controlled by the guerrillas.

When the guerrillas got too greedy, the smugglers would shift back to government airstrips. U.S. officers noticed these periodic shifts of drug flights from towns, such as Uchizi, which was under army control, to clandestine jungle strips held by the Sendero Luminoso, a guerrilla army. But the U.S. officers knew better than to speak up.

"In an effort to achieve our goal, we turn a blind eye to the host country's involvement," the military man told me. Though he spoke only on condition of anonymity, I confirmed his account with other U.S. government officials.

Academics who have studied the Peruvian drug trade have reached similar conclusions. "The Peruvian cocaine industry ... has benefited over decades from symbiotic governmental protection, dominated by the corruption ... of the Peruvian Investigative Police, Peru's top drug police," wrote Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall in Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America.

The Peruvian army also has been one of the most brutal militaries in South America, a continent infamous for its horrendous human rights record. In 1990, Juan E. Mendez, then executive director of Americas Watch, wrote on the New York Times op-ed page that "under the guise of drug interdiction in Peru, the U.S. is rushing headlong into one of the dirtiest wars being fought anywhere in the world today. If past experience in Vietnam and El Salvador is any guide, the U.S. presence will exercise virtually no restraint on the murder, torture and other human rights abuses that are now routine in Peru. Instead the U.S. will become a party to the crimes."

Order Uber Alles

There was a taste of another kind of U.S. complicity in the killing of the Tupac Amaru guerrillas on April 22 -- through the American news media's near celebration of the assault. Much of the U.S. press corps reacted with unrestrained enthusiasm: for the precision of the raid, the steely courage of Peru's autocratic president Alberto Fujimori, the thrill of a clear-cut military victory.

The Tupac Amaru guerrillas, who did not carry out threats to kill the hostages and instead were killed by the army, frequently were described as "terrorists" who got what they deserved. There was only muted references to how some of the guerrillas were executed after surrendering. [See related story in this issue] Fujimori's government allowed no autopsies and denied parents the right to bury their dead children. The bodies were dumped in an unmarked mass grave, and relatives who tried to visit the site were jailed.

"I just want to see my daughter's face one last time," wailed one mother, Johanna Rodriguez Bustamante. "I want to put my pain to rest, and give thanks to God that my daughter has some place to rest."

Yet, in a typical U.S. media reaction, The Wall Street Journal saw the assault and its aftermath only as a great victory for civilization and for order. "Peru -- relatively poor and rather remote -- sent the world a big message," the Journal editors rejoiced. "In simplest terms, the message seems to be this: In the face of evil we can win. 'We' is the civilized world -- the world of people who in their daily lives like to think that they abide by the rule of law -- that is, the system that makes the relations of life normal."

The editors went on with their paean to Peru and to Fujimori's assault on the compound: "Order won -- decisively. An important political lesson for our time resides in this event."

Little note was taken in the American media of the kind of "order" that Fujimori had imposed on Peru, with suspension of constitutional safeguards, continued government connections to drug traffickers, and widespread human rights violations. Fujimori also is maneuvering to evade a legal ban against him seeking another term in 2000.

In one rare dissent carried by The Los Angeles Times on April 24, Peruvian journalist Alvaro Vargas Llosa noted that the assault had bailed out Fujimori on a growing scandal. The raid ended two weeks of "macabre revelations about violations of human rights and government corruption," Vargas Llosa wrote.

Leonor La Rosa, a woman who worked for the Peruvian intelligence services, had accused her superiors of torturing her because she possessed evidence about atrocities they had committed through a secret "death squad" operation. "Then the mutilated corpse of another woman, Meriella Barreto, was discovered, confirming the claims of La Rosa and other former agents," Vargas Llosa wrote.

Other information surfaced linking a Fujimori adviser to payoffs from a major narcotrafficker. When the Peruvian media began focusing on these misdeeds, Fujimori's intelligence agents subjected the journalists to threats and harassment. Amid these scandals, Fujimori's popularity was in free fall, sinking to 35 percent. His disapproval rating soared to 60 percent.

Then came the decision to storm the Japanese compound and kill the 14 guerrillas. Even before the smoke cleared, Fujimori toured the battle site in a bullet-proof vest and was photographed inspecting the bodies of dead guerrillas. At least as measured by the U.S. media's reaction, Fujimori's star was ascendant again. Order had been restored. ~

(c) Copyright 1997

Return to Other Story Index

Return to Main Archive Index

Return to Consortium Main Menu.