CIA helps Peruvian jet shoot down Christian
missionaries over Amazon
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
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
"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
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
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,"
"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.
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 (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/coca-growing.gif),
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?