Sunday, September 26, 2004

Colombian police assault cocaine labs

CUMBITARA, Colombia (AP) -- Seven helicopter gunships skirted the steep mountainsides, then quickly descended on a cocaine lab, marked by a smoke grenade thrown by one of the raiders.

As the heavily armed anti-narcotics police jumped from the hovering craft, accompanied by an informant wearing a ski mask, peasants who worked the coca fields and in the complex scampered away.

Associated Press journalists accompanied the officers on the lightning raid Saturday, allowing them to see firsthand the type of dangerous operation that has put a crimp in Colombia's cocaine production.

So far this year, raids have destroyed 100 labs that convert coca paste -- made from the leaves of the coca bush -- into cocaine, said Col. Alvaro Velandia, deputy director of Colombia's anti-narcotics police.

Saturday's raid in the mountains of southwestern Colombia showed that precise intelligence, coordination between police and helicopter squadrons and swift action are needed to destroy the drug labs, often located in remote, rugged regions teeming with Marxist rebels, who make huge profits by controlling the drug trade.

After flying over vast coca fields hugging the base of steep mountainsides, the U.S.-made helicopters -- three Black hawks and four Hueys -- circled the cocaine-producing complex. One raider dropped a smoke grenade, its purple cloud billowing against a background of bright green coca bushes.

One helicopter, carrying an AP reporter, an AP photographer and police, banked into the landing zone and hovered four feet from the ground.

With the wash of the noisy rotors flattening nearby coca bushes, the door gunner made a hand signal, ordering those aboard to jump. The journalists and the raiders leapt to the earth. The police quickly fanned out, assault rifles at the ready.

"We are in the cocaine empire of the FARC," Velandia declared as he surveyed the scene. FARC, an acronym for Colombia's bigger rebel group -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- is one of the main players in Colombia's drug trade.

Finding a lab
Narino state, where Saturday's raid unfolded, is one of Colombia's major cocaine-producing areas, after U.S.-backed aerial fumigation wiped out much of the coca crop in neighboring Putumayo state, along the Ecuadorean border.

The 30 raiders, wearing olive green uniforms and helmets, noticed some earth recently had been overturned. They found buried barrels holding 44 pounds of coca base. The informant, who will be paid by police, looked on with satisfaction.

"I used to work here," he told the AP. "But I left because I had not been paid in 10 months. We were producing 3,306 pounds of cocaine every eight days."

Other policemen, meanwhile, moved down a slippery, steep slope, and found dozens of barrels of chemicals and electrical cables. Inside a hut, food was still cooking in a kitchen.

Moving deeper into the now-abandoned complex, the policemen found hidden in a gorge the lab that converted the coca paste into pure cocaine. Inside, they found 772 pounds of cocaine.

Suddenly, they were surprised by the ringing of a cell phone. A member of the Colombian inspector general's office found the phone and answered.

"Did you get away? Did you get away," a voice on the other end asked anxiously, before the caller realized he was not talking to a drug worker and hung up.

The officers also discovered an abandoned gold mine. Inside was a cocaine drying chamber.

All the while, a police explosives expert was lining the drug lab and the gold mine with charges. The police wanted to get in and out fast, before rebels of the FARC's 29th Front could arrive to counterattack.

The police stood back and watched as the explosives went off, echoing off the mountainsides. Pieces of the drug lab flew high into the air. The gold mine collapsed.

Members of the raiding party clambered back into the helicopters. One of the door gunners spotted a muzzle flash from the ground and opened fire. A cascade of machine-gun shell casings danced off the floor of the chopper and tumbled out the door, as the chopper clattered back to base at Pasto city where the raiders began planning a fresh operation.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.