- 23 Nov 07, 02:10 PM
Posted from: Palma Pampa.
We had a great day today, out with the drug police blowing up coca labs. We should have got a really exciting sequence for the film.
We flew in to Palma Pampa airstrip, across the white peaks of the High Andes. It was my first time in the notorious Apurimac Valley, Peru’s cocaine producing heartlands. As we circled the airstrip, a steep brown scar in the landscape, we could see coca fields everywhere. They make 100 tons of coke a year here, $2.5 billion worth, but the locals live in abject poverty. I was nervous. This isn’t a place where outsiders often come. And it’s especially un-cool to be seen hanging about with the local anti-drugs police. Which is exactly what we had come to do.
We unloaded our boxes and bags onto the dirt runway, making a multi-coloured pile the size of a small bungalow. We’re not travelling light on this trip and we tend to attract a bit of attention wherever we go. A bunch of surly locals looked on, undoubtedly imagining what we would look like with our testicles hacked off and placed in our mouths as a warning to other meddling TV crews.
The police live in a fortress surrounded by barbed wire and machine gun nests and only venture out in helicopter gunships or heavily armed convoys. Their job is to try to destroy bossas, the small coca processing labs that litter the jungle all over the valley.
The team, along with the military police, leave for their day of destroying bossas
The helis are run by the Americans and they had refused permission for us to fly with them, but the local Commandante, a balding chubby man who looked like a monk in combat fatigues, was keen to help out. I don’t think they get many visitors and he seemed really pleased to see us. He offered to take us on a raid of a bossa near the road.
There was something of Dad’s Army about our convoy, although considerably more heavily armed than Privates Jones and Pike. The American Special Forces adviser at the base told us they weren’t always sure how many men they had on their books, but somewhere between 100 and 110. Sometimes men got left in the field and they had to go back for them. I began to wonder whether this was such a good idea.
We rattled down the dirt roads in a convoy of three Toyota pick-ups, bristling with heavy machine guns. Two helicopter gunships wheeled overhead providing aerial support. We were invincible. It didn’t feel scary any more, just bloody exciting.
The bossa, when we got there, was a slight anti-climax – just a low wide trough made from rocks and lined with heavy-duty plastic. Around its edges were huge compost heaps of rotting coca leaves. Empty bottles and drums of chemicals littered the forest. It had been long abandoned, but the troops took up extravagant defensive positions around the perimeter.
The bossa on fire.
They piled the pipes and plastic and bottles into the centre of the bossa and tried to light a fire. It smouldered unconvincingly – they don’t call it a rain forest for nothing. El Commandante sent for petrol and Private Pike almost certainly lost his eyebrows in the resulting fireball. Stupid boy.
The bossa, or coca lab, after destruction.
All in all it was a great way to spend the day, blasting around Peru with a bunch of good guys in jeeps, acting out Special Forces fantasies. I’m not sure it will stem the tide of cocaine flooding our shores, but we had a good time.
As we drove back to the base and the troops took up the defensive positions across an exposed bridge, El Commandante said: ‘It’s about this time of the year that we normally get ambushed.’
I felt sorry for El Commandante. He’s fighting a losing battle in a war nobody wants, stuck in an isolated fortress in a forgotten, broken part of the world. Despite the billions spent on eradication each year, more and more coca is being grown in the Apurimac Valley and elsewhere. He was a kind and considerate man who was doing a dangerous job against impossible odds.
We found no answers to the problems facing the people of the Apurimac Valley, but I’m pretty sure they won’t lie with El Commandante and his boys. This felt like an absurd, unwinnable war, fought entirely for political reasons.
But, like pretty much everybody else we met here, they seemed like simple, good people trying to make sense of something that makes no sense.
Find out more about the cocaine producing regions