1998: Operation Jester – Coast Guard Aviation in Peru
Cocaine is made from the leaves of the Coca plant. After the leaves are harvested and soaked, the base for the powdered drug is extracted and the resulting crystallized substance is dried into bricks.
In 1980 Cocaine was not yet on the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) radar screen. The emphasis was on heroin. This changed rapidly. From the mid-1980s and1990s, 60% of the world’s Coca crop was grown in Peru. Most of that coca was processed into cocaine base, which was flown to Colombia to make cocaine for shipment to the United States and Europe. The primary coca-growing and drug-trafficking activities in Peru were in its Upper Huallaga Valley.
The U. S. Government began implementing policies to reduce the amount of cocaine flowing into the United States. They did this by interdiction and reducing the coca grown and processed into cocaine. The Reagan administration and the Peruvian Garcia government began collaborating on anti-drug programs in Peru. Initially, eradication of the Coca plant took place but did not prove effective.
In November 1985 under the Garcia government, interdiction was successful. Garcia believed that cocaine posed a threat to Peruvian national security and was determined to put an end to illegal narcotics trafficking. Garcia dispatched the army to remote areas to find and destroy cocaine laboratories. In eighteen months, his troops destroyed 36 laboratories, destroyed 150 airstrips, and took possession of 70 trafficking planes and an estimated 30 tons of coca paste. However, this would change. A Maoist guerilla movement, the Sendero Luminoso, also known as the Shining Path, emerged.
The Shining Path began as a means to stop the ongoing social injustices and abuses the indigenous peasants of Peru faced. The organization’s purpose was to destroy the “old foreign-dominated political system in Peru, to take power, and to create a “nationalistic,” Indian,” and “popular” democracy.” They recruited peasants to join in their political movement. They were known for their brutal tactics and their anti-government propaganda. .In 1986 the Shining Path guerillas gained control of the Huallaga Valley coca fields. They provided protection for the farmers They did not directly engage in the drug trade but they did protect the trafficker’s in exchange for monetary contributions.
Direct Peruvian interdiction became secondary to protecting the cities and other areas from the Shining Path. Coca eradication and interdiction missions continued to be carried out by Huey UH-1H helicopters. The Huey UH-1H helicopters were based out of Tinga Maria, 150 miles southeast of the Huallaga Valley growing area. This distance, a 300-mile round trip, was a significant deterrent to the effectiveness of the mission. The answer was to build a support base at Santa Lucia in the Huallaga Valley that would include an airfield, a maintenance facility for 6 to 10 U.S. UH-1H helicopters to be used for interdiction and law enforcement missions, and housing for personnel.
Building the Santa Lucia Base:
Heavily engaged in the Civil War, drug interdiction was no longer the top priority of the Peruvian Government. Building and equipping and manning the base became a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) responsibility. The Peru operation was part of the Department of State (DOS) overall Snow Cap operation. The DOS contracted with National Air Transport Incorporated (NATI) to build and provide security for the base. NATI was an elusive private corporation based out of Miami that provided services for the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics Matters (INM). Opening the airfield at Santa Lucia, more than any other factor would allow helicopters to be used more effectively for operational missions.
Building began in 1998. Because the base was in a highly dense, tropical area with no safe, accessible roads, fixed-wing aircraft were supplied by INM to transport personnel, equipment, and supplies to the base from Lima several times each week.. NATI was using C-123 aircraft. They were marginal for the operation and one C123 had been blown up on the ground in Columbia. This placed the personnel at Santa Lucia in a perilous situation.
U.S. Coast Guard Flight Support:
The Department of State (DOS) requested the U.S. Coast Guard, also not restricted by the Posse Comitatus Act, to provide a logistical air bridge between Lima and Santa Lucia for two months, utilizing C-130 aircraft. The necessity and immediacy of the situation was stressed. The Commandant, Admiral Paul Yost, answered in the affirmative. CG Air Station Clearwater was selected to provide the C-130 and crew. The mission briefing was conducted during the Labor Day weekend 1989.
The Coast Guard had previously flown helicopter engines and in one case, a helicopter, into Lima in support of the DEA. However, this time around it was considerably outside the operational norm. At the operations level, the concept was running a series of daily logistic flights from Lima Peru and other locations to a remote base in the Peruvian Andes under a constant threat of live-fire from the Shining Path forces. At the conclusion of the brief, Ed Park, the Operations Officer, commented “You’ve got to be fooling me! From this, the name Operation Jester was born.
Operation Jester required training, equipment, and tactics unfamiliar to Coast Guard aircrews and there was very little time to provide it. They would be flying into a “hot area” and the probability of taking small arms fire was high. The Coast Guard C-130s had no protection against the small arms fire. To address this problem the local command went outside the normal supply source and purchased Kevlar blankets on the open market. The blanket squares were hung and set in panels. This with modified landing procedures would provide a better degree of protection as opposed to a vest Small arms training was provided. Next on the agenda was Sidewinder Missile evasion training as it was suspected the Shining Path had acquired various surface to air missiles (SAMs) The C-130 had no defense against the SAMs but for the lack of anything better; a gunner’s belt was strapped to a Coast Guard Petty officer positioned on the rear ramp. If he saw a flash of light from a SAM heading his way, he would shoot a marine-grade distress flare hopefully causing the heat-seeking SAM to seek the flare as opposed to the C-130.
The first mission lifted off on September 9. Captain Dan Shorey, Clearwater CO, Bob Morrison, and Dale Harrington. The second on the 20th with John Siemens as Aircraft Commander with Steve Fothergill and Darrel Folsom. Three pilots went on the trips to avoid pilot fatigue. Again, on the 29th, three pilots went on board. At one time there were two Coast Guard C-130s on the ground in Lima at the same time when an Air Station Sacramento provided the crew. Once in Lima, a series of flights took place daily until all support material and support equipment was flown in. On the initial departure a trip a stop was made to “Arlington’, located at the old Carswell AFB to pick up large fuel bladders, referred to as “Blivits” and claymore mines. They were told that both could not be loaded on the same aircraft. Each Coast Guard Aircraft Commander was given a phone number with no other information. He was told to call that number if he ran into trouble. He did and both Blivits and Claymores were loaded. Both Blivits and Claymores were transported to Santa Lucia. The Blivits were the fuel source for the Hueys. The blivits were refueled from the C-130s using a special fitting and placing the C-130 in the defuel mode.
A NATI pilot road in the cockpit to provide local knowledge. Special approach and departures procedures were utilized to reduce the risk of ground fire.
The crews changed hotels every other night in Lima and wore civilian clothes to and from the airport, changing in and out of flight suits on the aircraft. All crewmembers were briefed to not wear name tags and remove unit patches. They carried small arms. The aircraft side numbers were removed, the words US Coast Guard were blacked out, POLECIA was painted on the side of the aircraft and protective tape was installed on belly antennas vulnerable to unimproved gravel and dirt runways. The aircraft were guarded each night by a TACLET crew out of the Seventh Coast Guard District.
The Coast Guards involvement concluded on October 20th, 1989. With the completion of the Base at Santa Lucia, the supply and support functions were again contracted out.
The Coast Guard team’s swiftness of action and dedication to the mission demonstrates why the Coast Guard is so often called upon. Possibly rooted in the reactive environment of its Search and Rescue Mission, its personnel adapt to the impossible and find a solution.