updated 3/8/2007 1:30:31 PM ET 2007-03-08T18:30:31

Peru, the world’s second-biggest cocaine producer, is upgrading its arsenal and stepping up river patrols in efforts to prevent Colombian guerrillas from setting up bases in coca-growing areas and fight small bands of Peruvian rebels allied with drug traffickers.

Defense Minister Allan Wagner told Reuters that 13 Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters are being overhauled in Russia in an $18 million project, while navy shipyards near Lima are building  patrol boats to cruise the river dividing Peru and Colombia.

Engine upgrades will allow the helicopters to fly at higher altitudes, he said in an interview Wednesday.

“The idea is to be able to take off and land in whatever area of Peru,” Wagner said.

That includes a rugged central region, home to a small remnant of the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla group and the heart of Peru’s coca-leaf growing and cocaine production.

Rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials FARC, buy coca leaf from farms on the Peruvian side of the Putumayo River border, he said. The navy has boosted patrols by 30 percent in the area, which is 12 days by river travel from Iquitos, Peru’s closest city.

The navy is building vessels with a shallow two-foot draft, each carrying two smaller fast motorboats, to enable patrols in the dry season when river levels are lower.

The U.S. State Department said in a report last week that Peruvian guerrillas are strengthening ties with drug traffickers, providing protection for coca transporters and in some cases directly participating in producing cocaine base.

Washington has earmarked nearly $500 million in anti-narcotics aid to Peru since 2002.

Peru’s $650 million four-year arms buying plan “is not making big acquisitions, rather we are refurbishing existing equipment and buying complementary equipment,” Wagner said.

“It’s good weaponry: strong and durable,” Wagner said of the arms bought in the 1970s and 1980s from what was then the Soviet Union. “We are looking to maintain, or better said, recover, operating (capacity).”

The upgraded helicopters will supply food to 17 anti-terrorist army bases arrayed against holdout Shining Path guerrillas in the Viscatan mountain range, which ascends to more than 11,500 feet.

Viscatan is four mountain ranges west of the Ene River, an Amazon tributary. It harbors about 100 of the 200-strong Shining Path rebel force in the Ene and Apurimac River valley region.

“They do the traffickers’ dirty work,” Wagner said, blaming the Shining Path for a December ambush that killed five policemen.

“The police are basically in the south and the north; there is little presence in the rest of the (valley),” he said. “That’s why there has been such a big rise in coca production.”

In the Upper Huallaga Valley, a coca-growing area in central-northern Peru, about 80 Shining Path guerrillas remain, Wagner said. Lacking bases, they live among local people.

At the height of its strength around 1990, Shining Path had nearly 3,000 members. Its war with the state cost 69,000 lives, the government says.

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