Radical Maneuvers

01 April 1997

The increased willingness from Brazil and other countries to give a hand to the military efforts directed by the US, does not appear to be enough for Uncle Sam.

John Smith straightens his marine cap over his crew cut. He looks warily from one side to another, slapping an impertinent mosquito that had landed on his muscular forearm, before walking toward the forest, with a high-powered rifle in his hands. His objective: he must capture a group of drug traffickers in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon region. A fantasy? Without a doubt.

These days it is highly unlikely that the White House would be interested in getting involved in the problems of civil society and the military by sending troops into Brazil to combat drug trafficking. And it appears that the US does not even need to do so. Slowly but surely the White House is winning increasing cooperation from Brazilian authorities - military, government and police - against an enemy that, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, has guaranteed the salaries of legions of agents and strategists.

This collaboration took an important leap forward between April and June of 1996, when Brazil provided information for Laser Strike, an operation prepared in the US Defense Department's Southern Command in Panama, and directed by US military in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. Venezuela and Ecuador also provided support.

Laser Strike is practically unknown in razil. In fact, even some of the key actors in the fight against drug trafficking have never heard of the operation. One of the most respected officials within the Federal Police swore that Brazil had not taken part in the maneuver, which targeted planes taking drugs and chemical supplies for processing cocaine in the Amazon region. We only exchanged information with the police from neighboring countries, which is in accordance with international conventions that we had signed, said the official.

But the architect of the operation, US Secretary of Defense William , Perry announced that Brazil had in fact taken part. And several of the military officers consulted, who insisted on anonymity, confirmed the logistical support provided for the operation led by US officers. Drug trafficking is growing in a threatening manner. And at least partially we are complying with the demands of the Pentagon, in a joint effort against the common enemy, stated a colonel with the High Command in Brasilia.

This marks a shift in the Brazilian position that is worth noting. Between the years 1992 and 1993, joint maneuvers involving the US and Guyana, in which they simulated operations against drug trafficking in the Amazon region, caused a great deal of commotion among Brazilian officers. The growing willingness of the Brazilian military'sto become involved in the fight against drug trafficking coincides with Brazil's increasing alignment with US foreign policy.

In December of 1994, in the Americas Summit, President Bill Clinton called on the rest of the continent to combat drug money laundering. The Brazilian government responded by preparing a legislative bill demanding that banks provide the government with information regarding high volume or suspicious operations. The bill is due to be presented before Congress shortly.

The bill, however, does not tamper with provisions for banking secrecy, in order not to upset the business community.

It is estimated that the equivalent of US$500 billion of dubious origin passes through the Brazilian banking system each year. Most of this capital, however, comes out of businesses' off-the-records accounts and is not linked to drug trafficking.

Before the project against money laundering, the government had already pushed through a law regarding patents, which curiously, was prepared with the help of US technicians. The law was the result of an old demand from the White House, and mainly benefitted chemical and pharmaceutical companies whose patents had been copied by national companies.

According to deputy Delfim Neto (of the rightwing Brazilian Popular Party - PPB), since President Fernando Henrique Cardosos decided to campaign for a chair on the UN Security Council, Brazil has become increasingly aligned with Uncle Sam's foreign policy. There is, however, a big gap between wanting closer ties with the US and receiving the acceptance of the big brother from the north. As of yet there are no clear signs that the Brazilians' efforts will be compensated for with a seat on the Security Council.

Constant tensions exist between the two countries in the International Commerce Organization, with the US demanding greater access to Brazilian markets, for its computer and information products, while Brazil demands compensation, especially in the steel and iron industry.

Toward the end of 1996, the Brazilian government decided not to accept US$600,000 in US anti-drug assistance. All of the agreements betweenthe FBI, the DEA and the Brazilian Federal Police, however, have remained intact. But the rejection of the assistance by the Minister of Justice, Nelson Jobim, caused a serious diplomatic rift.

In spite of these obstacles, operation Laser Strike represented an important step in bringing the Brazilian military into the fight against drugs. This participation became the subject of policy debate, although it was totally ignored by the Brazilian press. In April 1996 in a meeting in Miami of the US Southern Command and the military leaders from Latin America, Secretary Perry announced: Seven countries from this continent took part in the operation Laser Strike to go after the drug traffickers' air routes in the Andes and in Amazonia.

This is the first multinational hemispheric operation, and we are very proud of the results, Perry continued, euphorically. Meanwhile, officials from Southern Command leaked to Reuters news service the names of the countries involved: Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil, along with the US itself.

The Brazilians who were present at the meeting have not denied the reports. This was not an exercise such as those we have carried out in the past. This was a real operation, that represents a substantial investment, against the air transport routes used by drug traffickers, with the objective of interrupting the flow of drug trafficking to the US, commented one US official.

In May 1996, when Laser Strike was now in motion, the French news agency France Presse, reproduced a communique from Southern Command, saying that the operations had increased monitoring of air craft, the use of mobile radars and the training of allied nations' forces, for combating drug trafficking. Then-interim chief of Southern Command, the rear-admiral James Perkins, even affirmed that, in the second phase, Laser Strike would include operations within the countries where drug trafficking originates.

This was enough to cause an outbreak of criticism against presumed US interventionism. The most significant protests have come from the powerful campesino movement in Bolivia for the decriminalization of the cultivation of coca plants. Under pressures, the Bolivian Minister of Government, Carlos Sánchez Berzain denied in late June that the US forces had taken part directly in Laser Strike. In neighboring Peru, the US embassy also denied that US military had taken part in the operation. Only the term experts was mentioned. After several days, the US embassy admitted that US forces had taken part in support of Laser Strike.

These doubts were short-lived. To avoid new protests, the White House flew a group of US journalists to Peru, to observe parts of the operation.

They reported that, since June, Southern Command officials - experts in air defense - had set up operations in Iquitos, the largest city in Peru's Amazonian region. The presence of the military followed the rules of an agreement signed between the two countries. Using data received by US radar installations in Yurimaguas, Southern Command personnel coordinated the capture of light air craft coming from Brazil and Colombia, to collect the paste-base at the juncture of the rivers Huallaga and Marañon with the Amazon. Later, these planes took off once again toward the clandestine refining laboratories, in the depths of the Brazilian and Colombian Amazon region. The journalists confirmed the logistical support of neighboring countries, including Brazil.

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Rick Scott stated at the time to the Spanish press agency EFE that officers from the US Army, Marines and Air Force had been mobilized for Laser Strike. A few days later, another Defense Department spokesman, Kevin Bacon, gave the press an overview of the operation: We believe that since April between 15 and 20 air shipments of drugs have been interrupted or detained as a result of Laser Strike.

The increased willingness from Brazil and other countries to give a hand to the military efforts directed by the US, does not appear to be enough for Uncle Sam. The US Air Force reportedly sent a confidentil document to the head of Brazil's Air Force (FAB), General Sergio Ferolla (known for his nationalistic stance), suggesting a greater involvement of the Brazilian military in the fight against drug trafficking. Ferolla answered that the participation of the FAB in the combat against drug trafficking is unconstitutional, and therefore, impossible.. (1)

In another restricted message, sent to the US embassy, Ferolla said he felt that it was unnecessaryfor the Brazilian officials to meet with the US representatives, in response to a proposal to debate the matter of combating drug trafficking. To date, the FAB has not publicly stated its position regarding the US proposal to form a multinational anti-drug air force in Latin America.

According to Colonel Amerino Raposo, of the Brazilian Center for Strategic Studies, what the US wants is to diminish the role of our Armed Forces, by pressing them into the fight against drug trafficking, in a strictly police role, which would create more favorable conditions for the thesis of relative sovereignty in the Amazon region.

Reactions such as that of Raposo, Ferolla and those of key officials in the Federal Police, show that the time has not yet arrived for the presence of the Marine John Smith in the Amazon. Even so, the notable international support for militaryoperations planned by the Southern Command (such as Laser Strike) and pressures such as those exerted on the FAB - due to the dramatic increase in drug trafficking - also reveal that the White House will not rest - at least until they manage to convince civil societies and armed forces throughout the continent to cooperate in the fight against this latest mortal enemy. In the end, the goal of the Marines, as their own hymn states, has not changed: that is, to extend their presence from the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.


1. According to Brazilian law, the task of combating international drug trafficking is the responsibility of the Federal Police. In the States (departments), the responsibility lies with the Civil, Militarized and Municipal Police. The new Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN - which has replaced the National Information Service, created during military rule) will have as one of its attributions the fight against drug trafficking. It is a civilian agency, although it is run by a reserve military officer. Its budget and staff are minimal. What is most notable, in Brazil, is the absolute lack of coordination between the various police agencies involved in the fight against drugs.