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Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.

Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.

This story appeared in the Narconews Bulletin in 2002

Coca Country Updates: Colombia, Peru, Bolivia

by Peter Gorman
all rights reserved

While the eyes of the world have been on Afghanistan since the terrible events of September 11, several major political changes have occurred in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia that have gone almost unnoticed by the Western press during that same time. The southern Americas began to get noticed however, on March 20, when a car bomb killed 9 and injured dozens of others in front of the US Embassy in Lima on the eve of a South American trip by President Bush. While no US citizens were among the dead or wounded, and no damage was done to the embassy building, the explosion brought the attention of the American press to the Bush trip. During his short stay, Bush focused on gaining support for his stalled Andean Initiative (an expansion of Plan Colombia) and to rally the coca producing nations to support his expanded war on terrorism. Though the bombing is being blamed on an allegedly resurgent Shining Path—the Maoist extremists who terrorized Peru during the mid-and-late 1980s—some cynics have privately said the bombing could not have come at a better time for Bush and suspect the last people responsible would be the Peruvian rebels—who themselves have denied any responsibility.


But this is only the latest development in a large region recently undergoing significant political movement:
—In Colombia, the fragile peace process between the government of Andres Pastrana and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, was shattered violently on February 20, when Pastrana ordered 85 bombing raids on communities known to be FARC bases of support. The raids were all carried out in the Switzerland-sized sanctuary region of Colombia ceded to the FARC as a safe-haven during peace negotiations by Pastrana shortly after he took office. The raids and their aftermath were kept off-limits to journalists, who were all kept out of the region by military barricade. Reports on the raids and any further military action have been sketchy at best, though the AP did report on March 22 that fierce fighting between the government and the FARC was taking place on the Venezuelan border. The fighting, which began on March 20 near the town of Tibu, has already taken the lives of 17 army soldiers and 21 confirmed FARC dead. Elsewhere, the FARC were blamed for cutting water supplies at a resevoir in Colombia’s southern Andes which affected as many as 500,000.
—On March 10 Voters in Colombia overwhelmingly rejected the standard two primary political parties and elected a new congress in which independent parties, won a cumulative majority in both Houses—92 of 166 seats in the House of Representatives, and 57 of 99 seats in the Senate. A similar shift in political party power was seen in the last Gubernatorial elections nationwide. The two top vote getters—on a day when 62% of the eligible voters declined to cast votes—were former members of the M-19 Guerilla movement and now part of the Via Alterna or Alternate Route party which favors a peaceful settlement in Colombia’s ongoing bloody civil war.
As quoted in the Narco News Bulletin, the Colombian daily El Espectador noted that the election of the former guerillas Antonio Navarro and Gustavo Petro, represents “the rejection, by a large part of the population, of the idea of a ‘frontal war’ against subversion which the electorate identifies with the political figure of (presidential candidate) Alvaro Uribe.”
Uribe gets special mention because he is the heir apparent to Andres Pastrana as the leading candidate for the Presidency of Colombia, with elections coming on May 26. Uribe, former Mayor of Medellin during the height of that city’s cocaine rule, and subsequent Governor of Antioquia (1995-1997) the state in which Medellin is located, lists as his campaign chief Pedro Juan Moreno Villa, his former chief-of staff. But Moreno is also owner of a chemical production company called GMP Productos Quimicos, S.A., and during late-1997 and January,1998 three ships headed to GMP in Medellin were seized in California by Customs Agents. All were carrying potassium permanganate, a vital precurser chemical to the manufacture of cocaine. In all, more than 50,000 kilos of the chemical were confiscated—enough to make tens of thousands of kilos of powder coke.
Which would be a footnote in the history of drug dealing in Colombia except that six days after the elections, on Saturday, March 16, Roman Catholic Archbishop Isaias Duarte Cancino, Colombia’s highest cleric, was assassinated in Cali. According to the Miami Herald, “Two unidentified men with pistols shot Duarte, 63, several times late Saturday after he officiated a group wedding at the Buen Pastor church in a poor neighborhood of Cali, Colombia's third-largest city.” The shooting was in apparent retaliation for the Archbishop’s outspoken remarks concerning the presence of drug money in the recent elections. Duarte had called for a boycott of the elections, which might have had to do—at least in part—with the 62 percent absenteeism of ellibible voters in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. While it is early to speculate on who ordered the killing, Interior Minister Armando Estrada said ''one of the main hypotheses on the origin of this crime concerns the archbishop's denunciations of the role of drug traffickers in Colombian politics'' before the March 10 congressional elections. Others have blamed the FARC in the press, though it’s considerably more likely that either Uribe’s camp or the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, paramilitaries were responsible. Uribe’s camp evidently took Duarte’s denounciations personally, though he did not mention any specific candidates. And the AUC saw Duarte not only as a hindrance in the recent congressional elections, but as a threat in the upcoming presidential elections as well. The AUC have considerably more direct ties to both cocaine manufacturing and distribution—read, among others, Uribe’s camp—than either the FARC or the ELN rebels, whom Carlos Castaño, founder of the AUC, has hinted were behind the assassination, rather than his own men.
In a recent presidential debate, marred by the absence of Senator and Green Party candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who is being held hostage by the FARC rebels, four of the five candidates who participated, including Uribe, said they were in favor of extraditing Colombian rebels suspected of involvement in the drug trade to the US. The lone dissent came from the Liberal party candidate.
Betancourt, 40, an outspoken critic of political corruption, the paramilitary ties to the Colombian military and drug dealing, was abducted on Saturday, February 23 by the FARC, who have given the Colombian government one year from that date to agree to a swap of political prisoners. If their demand is not met they say they will kill her and five other politicians they are holding. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has agreed to mediate negotiations for Betancourt’s release.
—In an effort to further tie terrorism to drug dealing—Bush’s new war cry—the US has requested the extradition of three FARC rebels, along with four Brazilians, who were indicted by a federal grand jury on March 7 on charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine from Colombia to the US. One of the three has been identified as Tomas Molinas Caracas, commander of the FARC’s 16th Front, which controlled an airstrip said to be used by traffickers to ferry cocaine from remote regions. It is the first time felony narcotics charges have been brought against members of the rebel group.
—In addition to the above, DynCorp, the State Department contractee in the spraying of coca and poppy crops is being sued by Ecuadorians living near the Colombian border who have been adversely affected by the crop dusting (see related story, page ?). —On March 18, a State Department plane carrying a DynCorp pilot crahed into a tree and exploded during a coca-eradication spraying mission. The identification of the pilot was not released pending notification of his relatives, though the State Department did say he was not a US citizen. The downed OV-10 aircraft was one of five planes flying in formation when it apparently simply flew too low and hit a tree just south of the Larandia military base. No groundfire was reported in the area at the time and no foul play is suspected.
—Despite the unprecedented amount of coca destroyed by aerial spraying in Colombia, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the ONDCP, released a report in early March noting that coca cultivation in Colombia was up by 25% in 2001 over 2000. The Drug Czar’s office said the increase was due to coca growers utilizing land that was permanently cloud-covered, making identification of coca plots for eradication nearly impossible.

Peru has also seen several major developments gone unreported in most media in the US post September 11, most recently the visit by President Bush to the capital city of Lima. As noted above, a car bomb killed nine an wounded dozens in front of the US Embassy in Lima just three days before his arrival. Some thought the president would cancel that leg of his three-country, four-day tour as a result. He didn’t. Instead, he used the bombing as a platform to push his Andean Initiative both in Peru and the US, calling for renewed efforts on the part of Peru to combat both drugs and terrorism and promising US help on those fronts. He stressed that free-trade would solve both those issues by creating a healthy Peruvian economy and carefully avoided discussing the collapse of Argentina’s economy just a year into following the same free-trade prescription.
Peru’s President Alejandro Toledo roundly applauded the visit and vowed not to permit terrorism to get a new foothold in his relatively peaceful country as it had during much of the 1980s and early ‘90s.
Of note during the photo-op visit was that Bush’s arrival was met by a mass anti-US demonstration which the Peruvian military and police dispersed with teargas. American flags were then given to thousands and the Bush motorcade looked as if it were being greeted by adoring masses of Peruvians. Though not a lot of coverage was given to the real demonstration, both the Dallas Morning News and CNN did manage to include stories related to the tear gassing.
Despite Toledo’s glad-handing of Bush an his promises of assistance in combating terrorism, not everyone in Toledo’s administration was willing to do the same. Just two days prior to Bush’s arrival, Peru’s foreign minister, Diego Garcia-Sayan, told the AP that “Peru has not asked for and does not need external support to combat terrorism in the country.''
—In other recent developments in Peru, some media have begun reporting that the stepped up Colombian offensive against the FARC rebels has driven many into the Peruvian countryside. In its January 21 issue, Newsweek claimed that FARC rebels have set up camps deep in the Peruvian Amazon where they are working to gain sympathizers, rejeuvenate the violent Maoist Shining Path movement, and have convinced Peruvians to plant coca and poppies “in defiance of the US-backed war on drugs.”
While it is not possible to entirely dismiss the report as drug-war propoganda, it is also difficult to take it as anything else. The geography of Peru Amazon region is such that travel is almost exclusively by riverboat, and all passengers’ papers are checked rigorously on all riverboats, making travel by illegals difficult. In addition to the Peruvian military and riverine police checking passengers, the US DEA and Special Forces teams which accompany them would make such travel by large groups nearly impossible. And, as the Newsweek report goes on to say that the FARC are “equipped with AKM assault rifles, land mines and
rocket-propelled grenade launchers,” one can only realistically come to the conclusion that a gullible reporter was repeating stories fed to them by US agents for the purpose of gaining sympathy for the furtherance of Plan Colombia and the implementation of Bush’s Andean Initiative.
The Newsweek report also includes this comment from Jim Willard, the State Department's top anti-drug official in the
American embassy in Lima in claiming there was a surge of opium poppy planting across the country. “We know there are crops in the north, center and south of Peru and we are very worried about the increase."
—The Washington Post reported on February 22 that the survivors of the CIA-guided shootdown of a missionary plane in Peru in April 2001 were preparing to sue the US government for $35 million dollars in compensation because the US was not making any offer of a settlement despite promises of one. The shootdown, carried out by the Peruvian airforce after the missionaries’ Cessna was identified as a possible drug plane by CIA-contract pilots (see HT WHEN AND WHEN?) resulted in the death of Ronnie Bowers, a Baptist missionary and her young daughter Charity. The pilot of the plane, Kevin Donaldson, was seriously wounded in the incident. Two other passengers on the plane, Veronica’s husband Jim Bowers and their seven-year old son Cory, were traumatized but unhurt physically.
Shortly after the Post story, however, and just prior to Bush’s arrival in Lima, on March 20, the White House issued a formal apology to the Bowers’ family for the shootdown. "The United States government and the government of Peru deeply regret
this tragic event and the resulting deaths of Veronica and Charity Bowers and injuries to Jim and Cory Bowers, and their pilot, Kevin Donaldson. We offer our sincere condolences to the victims and their families."
Though the letter did not suggest that the US government was assuming any responsibility for the tragedy, it did evidently satisfy both the survivors and their organization, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism and trigger a financial settlement with the US Justice Department. No terms of that settlement have been released, though the ABWE’s attorney, Donald Davis, while happy an agreement has been reached, was not entirely happy with the process. "They [the US government] said we had to sign a release to absolve them of any financial responsibility for our expenses or they wouldn't reimburse the Bowers family at all," Davis said. "That was a disappointment to us."
The agreement, though not signed as yet, paves the way for the resumption of the US drug-plane surveillance flights that have been suspended in both Colombia and Peru since the incident. According to the same White House letter mentioned above, in considering such a resumption “We will…consider the concerns expressed by the U.S.Congress and the public, to ensure that any renewed program focuses on enhanced safety procedures."
Earlier, on March 15, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, (R-MI), in whose district the Bowers’ live, demanded that the administration, before renewing the program, certify that new safeguards be in place to prevent the loss of innocent life. But he is skeptical such safeguards can be designed. ''I'm very hesitant to go back to a shoot-down policy,” he told the Washington Post.

—On March 5, Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson met with the heads of state and anti-drug chiefs of more than four dozen countries for the 20th International Drug Control Conference in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. In an ironic twist, on the same night, former Bolivian congressman and head of the Bolivian coca-growing union Evo Morales was nominated for president by the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party in the nations capital, La Paz. The presidential election is scheduled for June 30. The story was missed by the entire western press with the exception of the Narco News Bulletin, which reported on both the congress and the nomination within hours of their happening.
Bolivia, which had been the poster boy for US anti-drug efforts in South America, has recently suffered at the hands of a US certification report, which noted that it has recently suffered problems in stopping new small-scale coca growing and that marijuana production is increasing there. Additionally, a human rights report by the US notes that during the first 180 days of Jorge ‘Tuto’ Quiroga’s presidency, the state has been guilty of 57 political assassinations, although the rights report additionally noted that Bolivia’s overall human rights record is not bad.
Morales, in accepting the nomination, denounced both the Bolivian Congress, whom he called “narcos” and the US government, which he accused of creating “misery and oppression” through imposing its will on the Andean nation.