IQUITOS, Peru — Under cover of darkness, anti-drug agents boarded the rusted barge moored at this remote Amazonian port city, close by the lawless jungle border with Colombia.
Inside a sweltering room full of hammocks, they found peasants from nearby river villages huddled together, and they searched for the two men they knew would be there.
The agents found their quarry: 20-something brothers with a small fortune hidden beneath rolls of toilet paper in their bags - 112 pounds of pure Peruvian cocaine.
“This happened thanks to the [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration],” said one of the agents. “With their money, we pay informants. We’ve been waiting for these two for three days.”
Washington increasingly is pouring funds and other resources into counternarcotics efforts in Peru, which has become a front in the global drug war as Colombian cartels step up their operations in the northern part of the country.
The shift in drug traffic from Colombia to Peru has been driven, in part, by the success of a previous counternarcotics operation. Under Plan Colombia in the 2000s, the U.S. gave $5 billion to the Colombian government to fight cocaine-selling guerrilla groups.
“This is the balloon effect,” said Jaime Antezana, a terrorism specialist with InterAmerican Security Watch. “The successes of Plan Colombia mean that drug runners are moving to what they perceive as safer grounds in Peru.”
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the leftist militant group known as FARC, has been trafficking cocaine in Peru, officials with Peru’s National Anti-Drug Directorate of the National Police told The Washington Times.
The anti-drug directorate reports that government seizures of cocaine in one northern Peruvian district increased from about 600 pounds a year in the 2000s to more than 1,400 pounds last year. Authorities this year already have seized more than 3,700 pounds of cocaine in that district.
Some of Peru’s national media outlets are abuzz with rumors about the formation of a Washington-Lima “Plan Peru.”
No officials have indicated those intentions publicly, but each side has acknowledged a desire for deeper anti-drug cooperation.
In March, Peruvian Defense Minister Alberto Otarola met with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in Washington and discussed several issues, including transnational crime and terrorism.
Last year, the State Department provided $160 million to Peru to help its forces eradicate coca crops, disrupt production and trafficking networks, and shut down operations that launder drug profits.
In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development is working to help coca growers shift to legitimate crop alternatives such as cocoa.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials declined to speak on the record about the nature and scope of the DEA’s support to Peruvian security forces, or about whether DEA agents operate alongside Peruvian agents.
But one Peruvian official displayed photos of what he said were DEA agents in recent raids on jungle cocaine labs. The men appeared to be American and were dressed in fatigues and carrying automatic weapons.
The U.S. Embassy in Lima confirmed that U.S. government helicopters were used in recent operations against remnants of the Shining Path, a longtime Maoist guerrilla group that is involved in cocaine operations in Peru’s southern jungles.
After his election victory last year, Peru’s populist president, Ollanta Humalla, appointed drug czar Ricardo Soberon, a progressive who surprised Washington by suspending a U.S.-backed coca eradication plan.
But Mr. Humalla has replaced Mr. Soberon with Carmen Masias, a hard-liner who has since pushed an aggressive counternarcotics initiative more aligned with Colombian policy.
According to the national drug control agency known as Devida, Peru’s government plans to eradicate 271,800 acres of coca bushes by 2016. The government says the plan would cut coca production by 30 percent.
Moreover, Devida reported recently that seizures of chemicals used to turn coca leaves into cocaine are expected to rise to a record 1,650 tons this year.