CIA helps Peruvian jet shoot down Christian missionaries over Amazon

The Peruvian anti-drug tactic of blowing suspected drug smuggling planes out of the sky aroused little notice in the press or elsewhere as long as the victims were presumed bad guys. Since April 20th - when a Peruvian pilot guided to his target by contract employees of the CIA in a plane leased from the Defense Department attacked a civilian Cessna and killed a US missionary and her infant child - the airwaves have been filled with mutual finger-pointing and hand-wringing as Peru and the US each seek to assign blame to the other.

Such recriminations, however, may miss the forest for the trees. Arguing over who followed which procedures does not affect the point encapsulated in the Convention on International Civil Aviation's Article 3, amended in 1984 in the wake of the Russian shoot-down of KAL007:

"The contracting States recognize that every state must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight and that, in case of interception, the lives of persons on board and the safety of the aircraft must not be endangered."

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the Montreal-based body that administers international aviation regulation, reemphasized its position in 1996 when it passed a resolution recognizing that "the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight is incompatible with elementary considerations of humanity, the rules of customary international law as codified in Article 3 and the norms of governmental behavior."

Both the United States and Peru are signatories to the convention. That did not stop the two from cooperating in a policy that results in the summary execution of persons suspected of - not convicted of or even charged with - flying cocaine across Peru. While the actual numbers of shootdowns and resulting deaths are buried in security bureaucracies in Lima and Washington, the figure of 30 aircraft shot down has been widely reported.

In a 1997 article in ICAO's house journal, Safety in Flight, the body's legal officer, John Augustin, explained that even if Article 3 is held in abeyance, international law forbids shooting down non-threatening civilian aircraft:

"In all cases," wrote Augustin, "where an aircraft is identified as civilian, the State is entitled to request it to land or change course; the aircraft must obey such order unless unable to do so. In attempting to give directives to an aircraft, a State must avoid subjecting it to danger. The primary remedy for the state is to make appropriate diplomatic representations to the aircraft's state of registry. If the aircraft does not pose or appear to pose a threat to security, force must not be used even if the aircrew disobeys orders to land or to change course."

The problem with international law, of course, is enforcement. ICAO spokesperson Denis Chagnon told DRCNet that the ultimate recourse would be the International Court of Justice in the Hague. However, said Chagnon, "I doubt that would happen. The only entities that would have status to bring the case would be member countries, not private citizens or organizations."

Even if some country were to bring the matter before the court, the United States has simply ignored the court when it proved inconvenient, as was the case when the tribunal found the US gui,lty of violating international law by mining Nicaraguan harbors in the early 1980s.

The "fly and die" tactic has quietly been US policy since 1994, when, after it was briefly halted because of legal concerns, President Clinton and the Congress approved changes in US law that allowed US officials to escape legal liability. US radar stations and surveillance planes track suspected drug smuggling flights, then notify the Peruvian authorities, who send up fighter jets to intercept and force the planes to land, or blow them out of the sky if they do not respond quickly enough.

Peruvian and US authorities say the tactic was justified in the effort to stop the flow of cocaine into the US. Peru garnered rave reviews from US officials for its fierce anti-drug programs of the 1990s, although the degree to which the "fly and die" policy contributed is difficult to quantify.

Not everyone shares the US government's anything goes attitude, and certainly not pilots. Dan Morningstar, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents more than half of all US pilots, told DRCNet there is "no justification" for shooting down civilian aircraft.

"We condemn the shoot-down, and have reminded everyone that we opposed resuming assistance to Peru in 1994, said Morningstar. "We warned then that there was a real risk of shooting down civilian aircraft."

AOPA decried the policy as inhumane and a double standard. "We wouldn't tolerate shooting or killing anyone inside US borders simply because they were suspected drug smugglers," said Morningstar. "You can't do that in the US - shooting down someone's plane constitutes, at the least, an unreasonable search and seizure." "Look," he said, "we believe that any nation that has the resources to track and intercept an aircraft also has the resources to follow that aircraft to its landing point and make an arrest. We acknowledge that it would require some negotiation and bilateral agreements, but again, the risk to innocent civilians far outweighs the risk to national security. This is a lesson we should have learned from KAL 007."

Latin America activist organizations also condemned the shootdown. "This incident is a reminder to all of us that the war on drugs is indeed a war with casualties," Gina Amatangelo of the Washington Office on Latin America told DRCNet. "In this case, the victims are innocent individuals from the US, but every day the US drug war in Latin America creates more victims," she said.

"The US government absolutely is responsible for the deaths of these US citizens because of its role in promoting this policy, supplying the personnel and equipment to make it possible, and even funding the base from which the Peruvian fighter took off," Amatangelo noted. "A liberal shoot-down policy is obviously dangerous, but it is carried out by Peru as part of a larger effort to militarize drug enforcement in the region. This is a tragic example of what we can expect to come as the US increases military funding in the region."

Adam Isaacson, senior policy analyst at the Center for International Policy, concurred. "We bought the plane used to shoot down the missionaries, we trained the people who pulled the trigger, it was all ours until the very last moment," he told DRCNet. "We share the blame. This also calls into question the nature of the people with whom we are working. The Peruvian military has longstanding problems of corruption, human rights violations, and lack of accountability," he said. "Nor has it made any difference in the street price of cocaine," he noted.

The deaths of missionary Veronica Bowers, 35, and her 7-month-old adopted daughter Charity were foreshadowed years ago. The US began setting up radar posts to track airborne drug smuggling in the Andes during the administration of George Bush the elder and began sharing the information with Colombian and Peruvian authorities in an effort to repress the region's thriving cocaine trade. After Peru shot down a suspected smuggler's plane in 1993, the program was briefly halted the following year when Justice Department lawyers determined that US officials could be prosecuted - and even sentenced to death - under US anti-terrorism laws for their involvement in shooting down civilian aircraft. At that time, the program was already causing grave concern among pilots and air transport industry groups and even some program participants.

Stuart Matthews, founder of the Flight Safety Foundation, told Air Safety Week in June, 1994, he strongly opposed renewing the shoot-down scheme. "It's contrary to international law, it's contrary to US law," he said. "Even if an airplane were full of drug smugglers and was shot down, what ever happened to due process, to which we all subscribe?"

The Air Transport Association of America relayed the same sentiments. "There is concern here, because it's always been the policy of our members to oppose any government shooting down of any civil aircraft for any reason," he told the industry weekly. "It would then allow that government to target civil aircraft for other reasons. It's one more step down the slippery slope."

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which quickly condemned the shootdown can lay claim to a certain prescience. "The AOPA will vigorously oppose any action by the government which would condone or encourage the use of deadly force against civilian aircraft," wrote AOPA president Phil Boyer. "Those in Washington who applaud the so-called 'shoot-down' policies of the Colombian and Peruvian governments cannot have forgotten that two civilian airliners were shot down in recent years after they were mistaken for military aircraft," Boyer continued. "Considering those horrifying events - one of which involved our own armed forces - how can anyone feel assured that a twin-engine Cessna carrying members of Congress on an overseas fact-finding mission will never be mistaken for an identical twin-engine Cessna full of drug smugglers?"

An Associated Press dispatch from the same period quoted some Customs agents and radar operators as also having deep misgivings. "I don't think we should be doing it," radar operator John Fowler told the AP. "I'm a Christian man. I am a believer. How can I as a believer work toward an end which deals with killing people? How can you justify this situation where our Constitution says innocent until proven guilty?" asked Fowler, who was suspended for five days in 1993 for refusing to participate in a similar program in Ecuador.

Another operator quoted by AP spoke anonymously to protect his job. "This definitely doesn't jibe with our version of democracy and human rights," he said. "Probable cause doesn't warrant the death penalty. Mistakes can happen."

However, congressional hard-liners, prodded by armchair warriors such as New York Times columnist Abe Rosenthal, brushed aside such fears, instead using the halt to polish their drug warrior credentials. Rep. (now Sen.) Charles Schumer (D-NY) slammed the Clinton administration decision to halt the program as "unwise, untimely, and unusually dangerous," while Rep. (now Sen.) Robert Torricelli (D-NY) called it "surrender and retreat."

When contacted by DRCNet, the official line at Torricelli's office was, "We are concentrating on other matters." One staff member who asked to be quoted only off the record told DRCNet Torricelli had "nothing" to say about the dead missionaries.

DRCNet calls to Sen. Schumer's office went unreturned. An embattled Peruvian embassy gamely offered a defense. "The program was good for Peru and good for the United States," a spokesman told DRCNet. "It helped reduce coca cultivation."

Actually, it didn't. Source country eradication programs have historically only shifted cultivation from place to place not lowered overall growing. A chart of Bolivian, Peruvian, Colombian and total coca cultivation figures (, for example, shows that cultivation in Peru did decrease significantly during the 1980s, but that total cultivation nevertheless hovered at around 200,000 hectares (nearly 800 square miles) as Colombian growers took up the slack.

Eradication and interdiction programs such as the shootdowns combined have also failed to achieve their goal of decreasing cocaine availability to increase price and discourage use. In 1988, for example, the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates the purity-adjusted retail price of cocaine (1998 dollars) was $213, but only $149 by 2000. Heroin prices fell even more steeply during the same period, from $3,153 to $1,029.

Will the deaths of Veronica and Charity Bowers then be in vain? Or will they spark a rethinking of our global drug policies?