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      Huallaga, The Narco-terrorist's Playground

      Bob Pilgrim

    Muzzles down, Frank White and the Peruvian Guardia Civil were packed into a veritable flying arsenal as their chopper roared into another potentially hot insert. On the floor, withering in very vocal pain was a narco-terrorist they had picked up earlier with the back of his leg blown off by one of the troops AK 47s during a firefight with Frank's team. The sordid scene was amplified by gouts of blood spurting from the N T's wound covering the boots of the commandos as they sat rather un perturbed by his sorry state. Finally, without a word or change of expression one of the Guardia men closest to him quietly put his Spanish made Star pistol to his head and he quieted down.

    Frank believed you could judge the courage of men by searching their eyes as they prepared themselves for imminent combat. At that point they either had it or not. Frank knew that each of his DEA Snowcap teammates possessed courage in abundance.

    Frank and Leatherneck, his senior Marine advisor enjoyed getting out of Washington and heading south to be in the jungles with the men and women of Snowcap. They particularly liked working with the Peruvians, because they were trained by the Soviets and had discipline. Without prompting and at every opportunity, they performed preventive maintenance on their rugged AK 47 rifles and looked after their equipment. More importantly, they were well led by brave, hard charging officers who aggressively attacked into the gunfire. This fit Frank's own tactical theme during a firefight of "attack, attack, attack." Frank studied these warriors and tried to figure out what made them different from the other indigenous forces they fought with. The Soviets did not simply accept what the Peruvian government sent them, but performed their own selection. If the "candidate" didn't cut it he didn't make the team, so Ivan knew what he was dealing with before training comme! nced. The Russians kept things simple and their tactics revolved around maximizing the effect of the limited small arms possessed by the Peruvians. What they had was what they could carry with them during air-mobile operations. Nothing was high tech, but they were able to develop a highly motivated, aggressive soldier who desired to close with and destroy the enemy. Additionally, small unit leaders led by example, from the front.

    As the helicopters penetrated the hotly contested Huallaga Valley considered to be one of the most violent pieces of real estate on earth, Frank saw that these troops were cool and confident-shooters that he could depend on. The HV is on the east side of the Andes Mountains and is not a huge tract of land. Hardly bigger than a good sized county in Texas, it was being fought over by terrorists who provided security for the drug cartels, narcotic traffickers and the cooperating Peruvian government. Two man teams were being inserted on key terrain to act as blocking forces, while the main body would sweep the Sendero Luminoso (Maoist, Shinning Path) guerillas toward the static positions. After the first fusillade of small arms fire against the helicopters, per SOP, the SL, dispersed into "twos and fews," scattering into the brush. It would be primarily up to the two man "killer" teams to ambush the fragmented remnants of the SL force before they could rendezvous at pr! e set rally points. They might not be able to annihilate an entire SL group, but they could hold them up long enough so the main force could intercept them.

    While this operation was being conducted over a period of weeks, a bivouac was set up at the edge of a river. After several days of scouring the area of operations and accounting for a number of Sendero their brethren up stream tried to intimidate the Guardia by throwing headless bodies into the river that washed up onto a sand bar near the camp. The bodies were recovered and buried. However, this display of savagery only served to increase the men's resolve to find, fix and finish them.

    Base camp living conditions were Spartan, but this was to be expected. Snowcap in the field had no logistics tail and none of the amenities expected at US facilities, save one. Since fitness was central to the mission and all the agents, both male and female, were gym junkies like Frank, he set up a small workout facility consisting of free weights and benches in all of the camps.

    The terrain reminded Frank of the Central Highlands in South Vietnam. Contour lines on maps were crowded and you were constantly ascending and descending. This called for real leg power, cardio fitness, balance and agility all of which the superb members of the Guardia Civil possessed in spades. Fully loaded with the accoutrements of war, they constantly climbed over labyrinths of large trees that had collapsed to the rain forest floor. Snowcap's basic load was 300 rounds of 5.56X45MM and 60 rounds of 9 MM hollow point. Explosives and cratering charges were added for destruction of air-strips and clandestine labs. The Guardia troops carried around 200 rounds of 7.62X39MM, fragmentation grenades and links of ammo for the RPD light machine guns.

    Big Gene was one of Frank's most able lieutenants and the two of them had pulled off a successful hostage rescue of informants that were abducted and tortured by the drug traffickers in Fort Lauderdale. Gene was a powerful man and absolutely fearless. In spite of the rugged terrain, heat and humidity, Gene not only started the pre dawn patrols strong, but also got stronger as the day became more unbearable for the troops. He immediately garnered the respect of the Guardia and his drive and leadership was infectious. With Gene and Frank, Leatherneck was on point and the colonel seemed to be enjoying himself even though pain was his constant companion. In the inter service and agency squad was a SEAL commander filling the number two spot with his cut down M60 machinegun. Their medic was an SF Sergeant Major and the rest of the force was fleshed out by JSCO trained DEA agents. The whole team of trigger pullers was accompanied by the battle hardened Peruvians and Frank knew! they were a formidable force lusting to wreck havoc on the coke cartels.

    Frank preached attack-attack-attack and once they assessed the threat to believe they could conquer it. However, this was also tempered by a realistic estimate of the situation and retreat and survival was as equally appreciated as was pressing the assault. They worked on immediate reaction drills until their reactions became second nature. Frank wanted his agents to be pro active-attack-fire and move, taking the fight to the enemy. In a relatively short period of time, the denizens of the Huallaga realized there was a new 600 pound gorilla in the valley and began to avoid contact with the Snowcap task force whenever possible.

    Casualties were avoided by adhering to sound scouting and patrolling procedures. Like Vietnam, Snowcap stayed off roads and trails, nothing very complicated, but the tactic had to be constantly reinforced. Frank coached his troops to not look at trees, but between them and to recognize foliage that had been disturbed instead of focusing on the ground. The jungle is neutral, but they learned it could be your savior if you moved slowly and practiced strict noise discipline. Slings were generally frowned upon so long guns were always in hand. By maintaining this type of combat discipline Snowcap forces were unpredictable and instead of being ambushed they became the ambushers.

    The coke labs, located through informants or by aggressive patrolling, were well camouflaged and the guards had to constantly change the foliage as it decayed. Occasionally, the defenders put up brief, but stiff resistance when they detected Snowcaps approach, but as soon as their flanks were threatened took off. Their weaponry was mixed, but generally equal to or better than the Guardia. Lots of FN SLR 7.62X57MM rifles, some HK G-3s, M16s and a few Israeli Galils were sported by the bad guys. The Sendero displayed more discipline and took care of their weaponry. The lab itself was placed on a concrete slab surrounded by thatched hooch's for living and storing volatile chemicals and cocaine base. Snowcap didn't hang around processing evidence; these were pure search and destroy operations. Since they didn't own the terrain, Snowcap had to get in, rig the explosives and get out. The longer they remained on target the greater the danger of a narco-terrorist counter attack or a! mbush. Dual primed with 20 minute fuses, gave the troops enough time to leg it out of there before the explosives and chemicals turned the area into hell. When the chemicals blew it sounded like a baby nuke accompanied by noxious mushroom like clouds. Although Snowcap forces tried to exit up wind, this was not always possible and the fumes were definite deleterious for one's long term health.

    Conversely, airstrips were spotted from the air. Security elements would comprise the initial insert. Once their boots were on the ground they would fan out into the tree line and occupy dominant terrain. Snowcaps contract pilots were Air America veterans and ground fire did not dissuade them when troops called for evacuation. When things got hot on the ground they could be completely relied upon. Once everyone had disembarked, the helos would circle the surrounding operational area to give agents a heads up if company was coming their way. Demolition teams placed 15 pound crateing charges in a "Z" across the landing strip. Once fired, the 30 pound charges would be placed in these holes and in turn detonated. Unless the traffickers brought in hordes of laborers similar to Uncle Ho's-Ho Chi Minh coolies, the strip was history.

    Next up: Frank meets a Son Tay Raider in the Huallaga.

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