- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

BARRANCOMINA, Colombia Colombia's Marxist rebels are directly engaged in the production and export of cocaine, according to documents, eyewitness testimony and receipts discovered in recent weeks in a remote eastern rain forest.
The evidence, stronger than anything previously documented, is important because U.S. policy calls for helping Colombia to fight the drug trade while avoiding direct involvement in its decades-old guerrilla war. That will become more difficult if the rebels turn out to be drug lords.
The guerrillas long have acknowledged that they impose a "war tax" on drug crops, but insist they do not take part in growing and selling illicit drugs.
That claim is contradicted by evidence uncovered over the past two months by special forces commandos of the Colombian army.
The evidence indicates that guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) buy coca-leaf "base" from peasants, pay operators of "laboratories" to refine the coca base into cocaine powder that is up to 99 percent pure, then sell the product to drug barons who smuggle the cocaine abroad.
"We may not have direct evidence against the FARC leadership yet, but it's the conductor of the orchestra," one prosecutor said.
The army's Operation Gato Negro (Black Cat), which is still in progress, was designed to drive guerrillas from a stretch of the Guaviare River that forms the border between Vichada and Guainia provinces, and to dismantle the narcotics infrastructure that finances the guerrilla movement.
Gen. Jorge Mora, commander of the army, gives top priority to the effort, which is overseen by the commander of the 4th division, Gen. Arcesio Barrero. The front line base for Gato Negro is in the village of Barrancomina on the Guainia side of the Guaviare River.
"You have to squeeze [the rebels] like a sandwich," Gen. Barrero said of the operation.

Army closes in

For more than two years, military intelligence and law enforcement agents had received accounts from peasants coming from Barrancomina and nearby villages that the FARC's 16th front, a unit of about 250 guerrillas, was engaged in cocaine and arms trafficking.
Many of those stories involved the 16th front's commander, Tomas Molina Caracas, alias "El Negro Acacio," and a suspected Brazilian drug dealer in his mid-30s who is known in the area as "Alvaro."
Alvaro's legal name is believed to be Luis Da Costa. He is also known to Brazilian and Colombian authorities by the alias "Fernandinho."
Military sources said that within days after Operation Gato Negro went into action Feb. 12, some 3,300 soldiers of the Colombian army's elite rapid deployment force had been flown into the area aboard eight U.S.-made UH-60 Black Hawk and five Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters.
It was the first military presence in this sparsely inhabited region, reachable only by air or river, since the army entered Barrancomina for a couple of days two years earlier.
The two mobile brigades and one special forces brigade disembarked with little warning in Barrancomina and the villages of Guerima 30 miles west, Puerto Principe about 65 miles southwest and Puerto Lindo, in between, systematically setting out to patrol the jungle and rivers.
Officers said the guerrillas had hurriedly fled from the villages. In a modest blue wooden house abandoned by Alvaro in Barrancomina, they reported having found $74,950 in cash as well as photographs, accounting notebooks and other significant documents.
Several days later, a special forces squad caught up with Alvaro at a farm. He managed to escape as gunfire erupted, according to a suspect captured at the scene, but the army later received reports that he had been wounded three times, most seriously in his right shoulder.
Days after that, the commandos surprised 16 guerrillas at a farm some nine miles north of Barrancomina. Six guerrillas were killed in a 30-minute firefight, officers said, while two army personnel, a lieutenant and a commando, were wounded.
Peasants told the army that they recognized some of the dead as escorts to Acacio, the 16th front commander. According to a guerrilla radio communication intercepted later by the army, Acacio himself had fled to the southwest.

Finding drug labs

Throughout the area, the soldiers discovered numerous drug labs, often with abandoned guerrilla encampments nearby. By March 8, troops had destroyed 29 peasant labs for processing coca leaf and nine sophisticated labs called "crystallizers" or "chongos" where coca base could be refined into cocaine powder.
Even more important, from a judicial investigative perspective, were some documents that were discovered March 4 and shown to a reporter visiting the area with the hard-charging field commander of the rapid deployment force, Brig. Gen. Carlos Fracica.
On that morning, special forces commandos entered a chongo near Barranco de Picuro, about 15 miles east of Barrancomina and half a mile north of the Guaviare River. The setup comprised nine rustic stick structures of different sizes with palm-thatched roofs.
Some huts were clogged with machinery, generators, ovens, presses, bags of powdered cement, buckets of baking soda and 55-gallon drums of chemicals to make cocaine. Others were a kitchen and lodgings for about 15 to 20 workers.
Gen. Fracica, who arrived shortly afterward aboard a Black Hawk helicopter, said it was the biggest lab found to that point of the operation. He estimated its monthly cocaine production capability at 3 to 5 tons.
Soldiers also had placed on a table near the entrance to the complex a FARC propaganda leaflet and two small receipts, both dated Nov. 26, 2000, and indicating payments to someone using the alias "Pollo," or "Chicken."
One was for 1 million Colombian pesos about $500 for receipt of "5,000 grams of crystal," amounting to a little more than 11 pounds. The second was for 4 million pesos about $2,000 for receipt of "5,000 grams of coca."
Near the bottom of each receipt was a maroon ink stamp with block lettering reading "16th front" and the name of a rebel hero for whom the front is named. Both were signed "Mono," whose identity was not clear.

Pluto's story

A captain and two soldiers, questioned independently, each said the receipts were found under a mattress in the workers' sleeping quarters. The same FARC stamp was also on documents found at other sites; civilians in the region confirmed its routine use.
"Crystal" commonly refers to refined cocaine powder, while "coca" could refer to refined or unrefined cocaine.
The amounts on the receipts do not correspond to the prices of coca base which costs about $400 to $450 per pound, according to people in the business or refined cocaine, which "crystallizer" labs sell for about $900 to $1,000 per pound.
More likely the amounts represent either a tax or a two-part payment to a chongo operator for processing the same 11 pounds of refined cocaine.
Additional insight into the guerrillas' drug operations was provided by a Barrancomina resident with links to the drug business who for his safety can be identified only by a randomly chosen alias, "Pluto."
Speaking in this quiet village with swept dirt streets and 1,000 to 1,500 inhabitants, he said he had once visited a crystallizer lab and seen about 20 guerrillas there.
"The guerrillas sleep in hammocks, while the workers sleep in bunk beds," Pluto said.
"The FARC buys coca base, sometimes giving loans to peasants to produce it. If others want to buy and sell coca base and crystal, they can, but they have to pay a tax to the FARC.
"The FARC then takes coca base to crystallizer labs owned by individuals. Juan Boyaco is the biggest chongo lab owner. Pollo is an owner. I know him. They call him Pollo because he has pale skin like a chicken… .
"He lives in Bogota, but has come here every several months to tend to business for a month or two," Pluto added. "There are others. They turn the FARC's coca base into crystal cocaine for a fee.
"If for some reason there is a problem with cash flow, or if there is a need for machinery and chemicals, the FARC gives loans and brings what's needed. The FARC then sells the cocaine to drug dealers from other countries who fly here, like Don Alvaro from Brazil, and Peruvians, who take the cocaine out. I heard they go to Suriname."

Alvaro's arrival

Another villager who knows Alvaro and El Negro Acacio confirmed the FARC role in cocaine production. "El Negro Acacio is in charge of everything," he said.
Army summaries of documents captured during Operation Gato Negro, which army intelligence identified as belonging to Alvaro, show seven flights by him or somebody else to Brazil since April 28. They also show that the carrier transported 3,894 pounds of cocaine that Alvaro apparently had purchased for $3.7 million and sold for $6.5 million, earning a net profit of $1.9 million after paying $943,000 in expenses and bribes.
Many of Barrancomina's inhabitants know of Alvaro, but few talk about him.
"Visitors sometimes come here, and we don't know who they are. It's bad to butt in about where they come from and where they're going," said the town's mayor, Berta Cecilia Ricardo.
However, those who will talk say it was one or two years ago that the man identified in a Brazilian "wanted" bulletin as Luis Da Costa first arrived in Barrancomina.
Pluto and others described Alvaro as an overweight, affable man who joined them in soccer games and sometimes brought Brazilian prostitutes to the town.
"He is best friends with the FARC," one man said. "The guerrillas would always protect him."
Alvaro usually was surrounded by up to a dozen guerrilla bodyguards, including one called "Tumaco" who is believed by authorities to be in charge of obtaining precursor chemicals for the cocaine labs.
Alvaro and El Negro Acacio "are partners," said a military intelligence analyst in 4th division headquarters in the central Colombia city of Villavicencio. Alvaro "tells Acacio that he wants to buy so many kilos of cocaine, and Acacio has his men collect it for him."

Payment in weapons

A notebook that the army says it captured contains a list showing what appear to be payments ranging from $2,000 to $78,000 with notations such as "Pilots/15,000." The notebook contained the names "Bolas," "Dumars," "Oscar" and "Raspao," all believed by the army to represent guerrillas who handle the 16th front's finances.
The aliases "Oscar" and "Raspao" are believed to have been used by a brother or cousin of Acacio's who once supervised finances and who, residents said, left the town several months ago after killing two men during an argument over a gambling debt.
Bolas is believed to have replaced Oscar as the chief financial officer of the 16th front.
Pluto and investigators said Alvaro sometimes pays the FARC in dollars, sometimes in weapons. According to an army intelligence summary of documents, Alvaro bartered 543 rifles, including AK-47s and G-3 assault rifles, and 2,417 pistols to the FARC in exchange for cocaine.
Pluto said he was once enlisted to unload ammunition-filled sacks from a Centurion airplane that had arrived from Brazil at the Barrancomina airstrip.
It is still not clear how far up the FARC chain of command the drug activity goes.
But the evidence and testimony from the jungle around Barrancomina make it clear that the FARC's relationship with the drug trade goes beyond simply charging a tax on coca crops.
Said Pluto: "The FARC is the maximum cocaine cartel. They are the owners. They don't take over the entire chain because they don't have the contacts abroad. Alvaro does that for them."


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