Peruvian Air Force jets attacked jungle airstrips used by cocaine traffickers yesterday as the government of President Alan Garcia launched a major offensive to disrupt the flow of drugs through the country's Amazon region.
Two squadrons of A37 light jets bombed, rocketed and strafed 12 isolated airstrips, the government said. The attacks were to continue for several days.
"This is the first time that military aircraft have been used in direct confrontation with traffickers," Interior Minister Abel Salinas said.
The opening of the Condor III operation capped a year of major efforts against traffic that has made Peru the major supplier of cocaine paste to the United States. According to international police sources, Peru's totals on interceptions and crop eradication in the last 12 months have exceeded the sums of the previous five years combined.
During those 12 months, the Garcia administration claims to have raided and damaged 144 clandestine airstrips, captured 14 aircraft, and confiscated more than 46 tons of cocaine paste and 351 tons of raw coca leaves. About 17,000 acres of coca plants are said to have been eradicated.
Peruvian officials are quick to contrast these figures and the latest attacks in the jungle with the results of the U.S.-Bolivian operations in eastern Bolivia, the second-ranking source of coca, last month.
However, the accomplishments here are a drop in the bucket compared to Peruvian coca paste production and potential. The latest Peruvian estimates show a minimum 300,000 acres planted in coca, mainly in the upper Huallaga Valley, 300 miles northeast of Lima.
The potential on the eastern slopes of the Andes, a 1,500-mile stretch of rugged jungle foothills, is practically limitless.
The Peruvian raids over the weekend were directed at international traffickers who had established bases of operations near the Colombian and Brazilian borders, 700 miles northeast of Lima. The region is part of the Amazon basin densely covered with tropic rain forest. It is accessible only by air and river.
Interior Minister Abel Salinas said that most of these sites were raided by narcotics police last year, but recently traffickers restarted operations.
The Peruvian government had been hoping for some kind of good will gesture from the Reagan administration, such as a substantial increase in funding. However, the Peruvian officials say they have been told this would be dependent on Peru's conduct on the Latin American debt front--where Peru has opted to limit payments--and other regional issues. This Peruvian account of U.S. policy has been denied by the State Department.
In fiscal 1986, Peru is receiving $3.2 million for the drug war, with $5 million and $9.3 million requested for 1987 and 1988. The Agency for International Development is carrying out a crop substitution and rural development program put at $23 million for the upper Huallaga Valley.
Although sources close to the presidency deny that the effort against the drug trade is a bargaining chip in the negotiations over Peru's $14 billion foreign debt, the government has hoped to get wider leeway on financial matters as a willing ally in the drive against drugs.
This week, the International Monetary Fund, on whose board the United States has a strong voice, is to decide whether Peru is declared ineligible for aid because it has not made full payment of $180 million in overdue debt service to that lending institution.
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