Cocaine war waged in jungle
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
PUERTO OSPINA, Colombia -- Two civilian spies pulled hoods over
and marched into the jungle, guiding 123 heavily armed Colombian Marines on a
seven-hour raid against coca-producing centers.
The mission proved rewarding for the troops from the U.S.-trained
who slogged through shin-deep mud and drenching rains to torch three drug
``laboratories and locate some 220 acres of coca bushes.
But it also revealed the massive hurdles that the Marines face
in the southern
state of Putumayo, where Colombian officials estimate the acreage planted with
coca adds up to one-third of the nation's total. Colombia's coca labs and
plantations produce 70 percent of the cocaine that is sold on U.S. streets.
Shortages of fuel and radios severely limit the soldiers' patrols
and add to their
danger. They lack helicopters to fumigate coca fields and to move troops
effectively against leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers.
Yet they are responsible for 13,130 square miles of some of the
impenetrable jungles in Latin America and 3,100 miles of year-around navigable
rivers, plus thousands more miles navigable only during the wet season.
``And all because of this damned plant, said Maj. Carlos Serna,
37, taking a
disgusted backhand swipe at a coca bush as he led the 123-man raid Sept. 17
near Puerto Ospina, a village on the Putumayo River.
River Combat Battalion 90 is one of five Marine units that has
military training and equipment to interdict river traffic in chemicals used for
processing coca leaves into paste and eventually cocaine.
The 1,300-strong battalion also faces well-armed leftist guerrillas
Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces, known as FARC, who tax the drug
traffickers and use the region's rivers to move fighters and weapons.
Colombia's government has asked for another $500 million in U.S.
counter-narcotics assistance for military and police units over the next year.
The latest U.S. military team to train the battalion gave noncommissioned
six weeks of classes on small-boat handling and repairs, patrol tactics and map
reading, said commander Lt. Col. Jose Muñoz Lopez.
U.S. Ambassador Curtis W. Kamman attended the graduation ceremony
at its main base in Puerto Leguizamo, a town of 8,000 on the caramel-colored
Putumayo River, 340 miles south of Bogota, reachable only by air or water.
Muñoz said the U.S. aid had helped his battalion so much
that by mid-September
it had passed its record for all of 1998, when it destroyed 27 coca-processing
centers called laboratories and 35 smaller sites called kitchens.
During two raids last week alone, the Marines torched nine labs
detained nine peasants and destroyed some 30 containers of chemicals used to
process coca leaves into paste.
Marines quickly repaired boat motors whenever they stalled, and
machine guns alertly toward the nearest bank as their attack boats sped over the
Putumayo, Colombia's southern border with Ecuador and Peru.
One Western military officer who has been monitoring Battalion
rated it ``an aggressive and smart bunch of guys.
But the Marines operate under huge handicaps.
BOATS FROM THE '50S
Critically short of gasoline and diesel fuel, the Leguizamo base
can run its
electricity generators only eight hours a day. A forward base in Monclart, 53 miles
upriver, has received no gasoline since August.
Leguizamo last week sent a flotilla of 1950s-era river gunboats,
tugs, barges and
small attack boats on an eight-hour run to buy fuel in Puerto Asis, some 150
miles to the west, half of it through guerrilla-infested jungle.
The previous refueling flotilla was hit by two rocket-propelled
wounded five soldiers as it returned from Puerto Asis, Capt. Amaury Peniche, the
region's Navy commander, told a group of journalists.
Those flotillas are similar to the ones occasionally sent out
to patrol the farther
reaches of the Putumayo: an 80- to 90-foot mother ship, used as a floating
barracks for Marines, and squads of 22-28 foot fast attack boats.
The patrol flotillas must reduce their range of operations during
the dry season,
from October to about January, because of low water on the river, although the
smaller attack boats can operate year around.
Squeezing extra duty out of last week's refueling flotilla, Battalion
90's second in
command, Maj. Serna, used it as a floating base from which to launch two days
of raids against coca processors near the river's banks.
The targets were pinpointed by the two civilian spies who had
scouted the area 15
days earlier. Former coca farmers from Puerto Ospina, they switched to the
military after guerrillas stepped up their presence there this spring.
Although the FARC has kept five to eight rebels stationed at Puerto
then, collecting tolls on passing boats and drug shipments, they had apparently
fled by the time the refueling flotilla docked.
The two spies, hooded to hide their identifies from former neighbors,
led the patrol
unerringly to two working laboratories, a key point because labs work only when
leaves are harvested, three to four times per year.
Only a 20-minute march out of Puerto Ospina and into the jungle,
smelling the chemicals used in a lab to turn leaves into paste -- gasoline, cement,
caustic soda, fertilizers and even some pesticides.
Ten minutes later the patrol broke into a small clearing planted
with coca and
spoted a laboratory -- a one-room hut attached to an open-sided shack, about 30
by 30 feet, used for mashing coca leaves and storing chemicals.
A longer march through thicker jungle opened onto a bigger coca
field and a larger
laboratory, containing five 60-gallon drums of gasoline-soaked coca, empty but
with bedding for 18 workers and a case of mandarin-flavored Gatoraid.
Marines later spotted a smaller coca field nearby, and Serna ordered
search for the kitchen he knew had to be hidden somewhere close by. They found
the 15-by-15 foot hut not 30 feet into the jungle.
``A very good day, proclaimed Serna, 37, a two-year veteran of
patrols whose sister and parents live in Miami. ``Just consider what more we
could do with more fuel, more American help, maybe a helicopter.
His 123-man patrol had only three portable radios -- U.S. Army
units have one per
dozen or so men -- and one's battery died soon after the column set off from the
gunboat Riohacha, their floating barracks.
Radio contact with the gunboat, the column's only possibility
for calling in
reinforcements or support fire from the ship's cannon if it came under heavy
attack, was lost half a mile into the jungle.
``The jungle swallows communications, Serna said. So who would
he call for
help? ``The Holy Trinity, he joked.
Without enough radios, the column became strung out over the seven-hour
mission. Four soldiers briefly lost their way, and at one point an officer found
himself on a narrow trail with only two other Marines.
At each lab and kitchen, Serna had to take legal samples of each
down approximate quantities and snap photographs with a pocket camera before
he torched the huts with the processors' own gasoline.
But as the patrol withdrew, it had to leave the coca fields intact.
To uproot the
plants by hand would have taken days -- giving guerrillas time to set up ambushes
-- and most plants would have grown back in any case.
Serna did log the coca's locations with a hand-held computer that
to determine latitude and longitude, for relay later to National Police fumigation
helicopters. But he knew that was useless.
``We've been reporting positions for two years and nothing happens,
because police choppers have been too busy spraying bigger plantations
elsewhere around Colombia.
The Marines found the labs empty of workers or owners and detained
peasants who claimed to have been clearing cow pastures nearby. ``Just making
the machete fly, my general, one of the peasants told Serna.
A squad of soldiers aboard one helicopter could have hit the same
three sites in a
lot less time, Serna acknowledged, and perhaps arrived with enough surprise to
arrest lab workers or owners.
Back aboard the Riohacha, Serna and two officers then spent another
legal reports detailing the materials they destroyed or seized, down to a quart
bottle of sulfuric acid and a single 9mm bullet.
Another lieutenant later came into his room to ask Serna how to
account for the
meals given to the detained peasants, because the Riohacha's kitchen was trying
to charge them to his unit's allocation.
``Well, the prisoners have to eat, so I guess some of your guys
are going to have
to eat [cold, packaged] rations, Serna replied.
The next morning, one Marine grumbling about the incessant rains,
cold food and
low salary of about $210 per month said he was considering quitting after more
than 18 months in the battalion.
Drug traffickers who are competing against the guerrillas for
control of the coca
trade in the area have offered him and other Battalion 90 Marines up to $555 per
month to join their private armies, he said.
``They know we had American trainers, said the Marine, ``so they
think we're the