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US Troops in Peru’s Coca Zone

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It has been making practically no headlines outside Peru, and hardly any within, but a force of US Marines has apparently been mobilized to the Andean country—specifically to the conflicted coca-growing jungle region known as the VRAE, or Valley of the Apurímac and Ene Rivers. Peru’s Congress quietly approved the deployment in a resolution Jan. 29. The first contingent of 58 soldiers arrived on Feb. 1, and a second of 67 troops on Feb. 15. They are to stay for a year on what is being called a “training” mission. A much larger contingent is to arrive in September, a total to 3,200 Marines, for a six-day joint exercise with Peruvian forces. (Defensa.com, Feb. 19)

A small Marine Corps “security cooperation team” returned to the US in late November following a six-week training mission in Villa Rica, a district in central Oxapampa province, Pasco region—an area apparently chosen because its high jungle terrain is similar to that of the VRAE. The mission was apparently to train Peruvian marines for operations in the VRAE, where remnant Shining Path guerillas are said to be working with local narco gangs. Gen. John Kelly, head of US Southern Command, visited the VRAE in September to discuss sharing counterinsurgency skills with Peruvian forces. In a Lima interview with Marine Corps Times, Kelly cited the example of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), long faced by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also used by the guerillas in the VRAE:  “What a better way to do it than by joining the experiences our marines face in the VRAEM with what Marines experienced in their conflicts? By putting them together and exchanging those ideas, we increase our knowledge of the problem and find better ways to prevent this type of weapon.”

But the deployment is meeting some protest in Peru. Alberto Adrianzen, the country’s representative to the Andean Parliament, told TeleSUR the decision to accept the Marines “confirms that the Peruvian government is following a position of not looking for a South American mechanism for defense, which is what many nations propose, but a special relationship with the United States.”

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