The Long Blue Line: Operation “Jester”–Coast Guard counterdrug ops in Peru

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John Moseley, Historian, Coast Guard Aviation Association

In 1980, cocaine was not yet on the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) radar screen. At the time, the DEA focused on heroin. This focus changed quickly. During the mid-1980s and 1990s, 60 percent of the world’s coca crop was grown in Peru. Most of that coca was processed into a cocaine base and flown to Colombia to make cocaine for shipment to the United States and Europe.

Rare photo of Coast Guard personnel boarding a C-130 employed in Peru-based Operation Jester. (Coast Guard Aviation Association)

The U.S. Government began implementing policies to reduce the amount of cocaine flowing into the United States. The Reagan administration and Peru’s government began collaborating on anti-drug programs within Peru. In November 1985, under the Peruvian government, drug interdiction proved successful. Peru dispatched its army to remote areas to locate and destroy the cocaine laboratories. In 18 months, these troops destroyed 36 laboratories and 150 airstrips, and seized 70 trafficking planes and 30 tons of coca paste. This initial success did not last.

At that time, the primary coca-growing and drug-trafficking activities in Peru were in the Upper Huallaga Valley. A Maoist guerilla movement, the Sendero Luminoso, also known as “The Shining Path,” took root in the jungles. The Shining Path began as a means to stop ongoing social injustices and abuses faced by the indigenous people of Peru. In 1986, Shining Path guerillas took control of the Huallaga Valley’s coca fields. They provided protection to the farmers, but collected a tax for doing so. 

The Peruvian government became embroiled in a civil war and drug interdiction was no longer the top priority. Building, equipping and manning a strategic airfield in the Huallaga Valley became the DEA’s responsibility. The counterdrug operation became part of a larger Department of State (DOS) operation labelled “Snow Cap.” DOS contracted with the private contractor National Air Transport Incorporated (NATI) to build and provide security for the base. Building the airfield, more than any other factor, would allow counterdrug aircraft to be used more effectively.

Color image showing a Coast Guard C-130 with “Policia” markings on the fuselage. Coast Guardsmen AM2 Charles Vilamere, AE2 Mike Kaszuba and AD1 Steven “Sleepy” Franks, pose in front with side arms. (Coast Guard Aviation Association)

Construction of the airfield began in 1998 with fixed-wing aircraft flying personnel, equipment, and supplies from Lima, Peru, to the base several times each week. DOS requested the assistance of the Coast Guard to provide an air bridge between Lima and the airfield in Santa Lucia for two months using its HC-130 “Hercules” aircraft. DOS stressed the immediacy of the situation, so Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost agreed to the mission and Air Station Clearwater provided a C-130 and aircrew.

The Coast Guard had previously flown helicopter engines and, in one case, a helicopter into Lima in support of the DEA. However, this time the assignment was far beyond the Service’s normal mission. At the operations level, this mission required a series of daily flights from Lima and other locations to the remote airbase in the Andes under threat from Shining Path forces. At the initial Coast Guard operations brief, Commander Ed Park responded “You’ve got to be fooling me!”  From this astonished statement, the name operation’s name “Jester” was born.

Operation Jester required training, equipment and tactics not familiar to Coast Guard aircrews and there was very little time to provide it to them. The crews would be flying into a “hot area” with a high risk of taking small arms fire. The Coast Guard C-130s had no protection against incoming rounds, so the local command purchased Kevlar bullet proof blankets. The blanket squares were set in panels and, with modified landing procedures, provided a higher degree of protection than flak vests.

Color photo of Operation Jester’s forward base and airstrip at Santa Lucia, Peru, showing the tail rotor of a Huey helicopter located behind sandbag fortifications. (Coast Guard Aviation Association)

Next on the agenda was Sidewinder Missile evasion training. It was thought that The Shining Path had acquired various surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and the C-130s had no defense against SAMs. For lack of advanced technology, the Coast Guard crews improvised. An aircrew member sat on the C-130s’ rear ramp. If he saw the flash of light from a SAM, he would fire a marine grade distress flare. The theory was that the flare would cause the heat-seeking SAM to follow the flare and not the aircraft.

The C-130s’ Coast Guard markings were removed with the words “U S Coast Guard” blacked-out, “POLICIA” painted on their sides. And, protective tape covered the aircrafts’ belly antennas, which were vulnerable to dirt runways. The C-130s were guarded each night by a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment from District Seven.

As part of their mission routine, the C-130s flew special approach and departure procedures to reduce risk of ground fire. Air crews changed hotels every other night in Lima. Their members wore civilian clothes to and from the airport and changed in and out of flight suits on the aircraft. All crewmembers were briefed not to wear name tags and remove unit patches. They also carried small arms. Each Coast Guard aircraft commander was given a satellite phone and one number. He was told to call that number if he ran into trouble.

Another photo of the forward base at Santa Lucia showing temporary housing reminiscent of fortified bases in the Vietnam War. (Coast Guard Aviation Association)

The first Operation Jester mission lifted off on September 9th and the second deployed on the 20th. A pool of three Coast Guard pilots rotated flight duty to avoid pilot fatigue from the seven-day-per-week schedule. The missions continued on two-week intervals. After Air Station Sacramento provided another crew, there were two Coast Guard C-130s flying Operation Jester missions from Lima.

Once in Lima, a series of flights took place daily until all support material and equipment was delivered to Santa Lucia. On their initial departure, each C-130 stopped at the former Carswell Air Force Base to get large fuel bladders, referred to as “blivets,” and Claymore mines. The blivets and Claymores were transported to Santa Lucia. The blivets provided fuel storage for Huey patrol helicopters and were filled by de-fueling the Hercules aircraft using a special fuel fitting.

The Coast Guard’s involvement in Operation Jester concluded on October 20, 1989. With the completion of the Base at Santa Lucia, the supply functions were assigned to a contractor. The Coast Guard team’s swift action and dedication to the mission demonstrates why the Coast Guard is frequently called upon for rapid response. Rooted in its search and rescue mentality, Coast Guard personnel adapt to the impossible and find a solution.

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