Treachery over the Andes

The downing of a U.S. missionary plane over Peru raises questions about whether we can trust our drug-war allies -- and the families of soldiers who died in Colombia say the answer is no.

By Jeff Stein
Published April 24, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

The killing of Veronica Bowers and her daughter Charity by Peruvian pilots who thought their Baptist missionary plane was part of a drug operation is just the latest tragedy to result from the controversial U.S.-backed drug war in the shadowy skies over the Andes.

Maybe the most mysterious aspect of the plane's downing Friday was the role of a CIA drug surveillance team, which first notified the Peruvians that the Baptists' plane was flying in airspace frequented by drug traffickers. Though the CIA team insists it warned the Peruvian officer who was riding along on the flight not to attack the plane without more information about its mission, the officer apparently gave the order for a nearby fighter jet to shoot at the single-engine Cessna.

Bowers and her daughter were killed by a single bullet; her husband Jim and son were rescued from the downed plane and survived, as did the pilot. Their distraught families are demanding answers from the U.S., which announced it would suspend such surveillance flights pending an investigation of the shooting.

"There was no communication," says Jim Bowers' older brother, Phil. "The planes flew by first, did some swooping, and then came in from behind and started shooting. Why didn't they call and check the registration?" he said. "Sounds like a bunch of vigilante, hotshot pilots. Either that or someone higher up ordered the pilots to shoot."

To some veterans of U.S. anti-drug operations in Colombia, and the families of those who have died there, such concerns about treachery will sound sadly familiar. A Salon investigation of several U.S. air units flying drug interdiction flights over Colombia shows American military personnel routinely worried about the trustworthiness of their local allies. They also complained of poor security, compromise of flight plans, and friction between U.S. military, CIA and local military personnel.

"It was bound to happen sooner or later," said a former U.S. Special Forces soldier who served on several anti-drug missions in the region, including in Colombia. While he was flying a counternarcotics mission out of Haiti in 1995, he said, his Blackhawk helicopter was nearly shot down by a Venezuelan fighter because the chopper pilot had forgotten to activate the onboard IFF -- the "friend or foe" signal that identifies the craft.

"Those guys are so trigger-happy, especially the fighter jocks. It doesn't matter whether they're from Peru, Colombia or wherever." He said it was "entirely possible" that a similar mix-up downed the Cessna in Peru.

But in Colombia, problems of coordination and communication are only part of the problem, veterans say. There is also evidence that Washington's host and ally in the Colombian drug war has been penetrated by the narcotics cartels. Pilots have complained that Colombian military personnel riding along on their surveillance flights notified drug traffickers of their whereabouts.

"In Vietnam, you called them Victor Charles, or Charlies," said a 26-year-old former U.S. Army Ranger who served as an advisor in Colombia in 1997, referring to the nickname for the Communist Viet Cong. "We call them 'Julios'" -- drug traffickers and their agents inside Colombia's military units.

There's no evidence -- yet -- of such betrayal in the Bowers case. But the tragedy highlights the high cost of the inter-American war on drugs. Its expansion under the $1.3 billion Plan Colombia will only continue to spread those risks to neighboring states like Peru, and ultimately, as the Bowers family painfully learned, to the U.S.

Charles Odom felt the drug war's sting in July 1999, when his wife Jennifer Odom's U.S. Army spy plane crashed in Colombia, killing her, four other U.S. crewmembers, and two Colombian military "ride-alongs."

"I'll always believe that plane was shot down, and now because of Peru, maybe we'll someday find out it was by one of our own," said Odom, himself a retired Army colonel. Odom has long theorized that a drug cartel, tipped off to the spy plane's movements by corrupt military personnel, was responsible for downing his wife's plane, because she was constantly taking ground fire and had often been "lit up" by missile radar when flying over the coca fields.

The Army insists that Jennifer Odom's four-prop Dehaviland-7 crashed into the Andes because the crew put faulty target coordinates into the onboard navigation computer. But her husband says the data was always provided by the U.S. Embassy in Bogota -- a view backed up by other members of her unit, the 204th Military Intelligence Battalion, based in El Paso, Texas.

Moreover Odom, who won two citations from the Drug Enforcement Agency for helping down suspected narcotics flights, also worried about the reliability of the Colombians who often ride along, her husband says.

So did former crewmember Briana Krueger, a U.S. Army intelligence specialist who, unlike Odom, lived to tell about it herself. But Krueger's husband Ray was not so lucky -- he perished along with Odom on the fateful July surveillance mission. Like Chuck Odom, Krueger believes her spouse lost his life because officials within the Colombian military -- and possibly even the U.S. military -- were collaborating with drug traffickers.

Ironically, the deaths of Odom and Krueger helped lead to expanded use of for-hire civilian contractors -- like the CIA-paid crew that first identified the Bowers' plane, incorrectly, as a drug-trafficking suspect -- in order to avoid more U.S. military casualties. But they have not led the U.S. military to admit that its Andean drug war, which has just claimed two more American lives, has spiraled out of its control.

Now, when she looks back, Briana Krueger realizes she was in more danger in Colombia than she knew at the time.

Nighttime spy missions over the Andes were always draining. Winds off the sheer mountains made the four-prop "Dash-7" tremble like a leaf. The long hours hunched over a radio set in headphones eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of drug traffickers left her and the rest of the six-man crew exhausted. But one day in 1999 Krueger, an Army-trained Spanish-language linguist, learned something that terrified her: Two Colombian military officers riding along in her plane had been detected clandestinely communicating with drug traffickers on the ground. The unit's flight path had been compromised -- by enemy moles onboard working for the drug cartels. Krueger's account, in an exclusive interview with Salon, makes public for the first time what U.S. personnel in Colombia have long taken for granted but generally kept to themselves: Our supposed allies in the Colombian drug war have been corrupted by the narcotics cartels.

Pilots from Krueger's unit, the 204th Military Intelligence Battalion, based in El Paso, Texas, also tell stories of lackluster security and intense friction between U.S. and Colombia personnel at Apiay, the mountain base 35 miles south of Bogata where crews from the U.S. Army, the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency fly in and out.

The U.S. Army denies its spy flights have been infiltrated by Colombians working with drug traffickers, despite the embarrassing spectacle of discovering that the wife of its top counternarcotics official in Bogota was smuggling cocaine to New York with the help of her husband's driver. Col. James Hiett, who was himself convicted last year for helping his wife Laurie launder profits from her drug sales, was routinely briefed on the 204th's spy flights, including Odom's doomed mission in July 1999.

The U.S. Army's Intelligence and Security Command responded to a faxed query about corruption in the 204th with a statement that there was "no reliable evidence" that any missions had been compromised by Colombian ride-alongs on the flights.

Krueger's detailed, on-the-record account, however, and more general comments by unit personnel about security problems in Colombia, belie the Army's assurances.

Krueger was assigned to Odom's unit, then based in the Panama Canal Zone. The unit conducts both electronic and photographic reconnaissance of the cocaine-producing regions of the Andes -- Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia -- spending long hours circling over the jungles and mountains.

Under terms negotiated with the U.S., the military personnel of Andean host countries usually rode along on the airborne intelligence missions. But in Colombia, the unit was also required to file flight plans with Bogota's civil air authority, virtually insuring that drug traffickers knew where they were going before they lifted off the runway.

Right away, Krueger said, she got a bad feeling about Colombia.

"Most Latin American countries, you can get a feel if they're gonna be fighting against drugs with you," she said. "I didn't get that feeling at all from Day 1 when I stepped into Colombia. It's like, why work with people if they're not gonna be helping us, they're gonna be against us and we can't trust them? It doesn't make any sense.

"In Colombia, you didn't know who to trust and who not to trust."

Krueger's fears were borne out in February 1999 after a routine review of mission tapes by intelligence analysts back at the Army intelligence headquarters in Fort Huachuka, Ariz. They had picked up something she'd missed: the voices of Colombian ride-alongs on her flight talking to drug traffickers on the ground.

"They had caught it on the tape," Krueger said. The analysts played it back for the U.S. crew on the plane, she said.

"We heard the guys on the ground saying, 'There's a helicopter' (one flying in tandem with her plane that day). And the guys on the plane were talking to them about us coming, and warning them (the drug smugglers) to get out of there -- 'We're coming, we're on our way.'"

"I mean, you could clearly hear (it)," Krueger continued. "I don't know how we didn't hear it while we were on the mission. I guess we were doing so many things at once. Everybody has their own sections of the country they have to [monitor] while we're on the plane. Unless you pick up something and then everybody gets on one thing, then you're doing your own thing.

"They asked questions of everybody that was on that mission," she said, "and had us listen to the tapes again. Everybody was like, 'whoa,' because we didn't catch it while we were flying. It was after the tapes were sent out that they caught it. That's when we found out about it. We left (Colombia) early because of that."

For a while after the leak was detected the flights were suspended, partly out of security concerns, but also because of constant equipment failures, she said.

"There were always problems with the planes, they were always messed up," Krueger recalled. "The surveillance equipment. Lights weren't working right. Some stuff with the fuel and the engines wasn't working right. I mean, they were down a lot."

In June of that year, meanwhile, she'd married Ray Krueger, another intelligence specialist in the unit, whom she'd dated for two years.

Then in July the company commander caused an uproar when he announced the crew would be resuming spy missions in Colombia.

"Nobody was even thinking about [going back to] Colombia," Krueger said, "so when he said Colombia, there was a hush all over the room, like, 'What? Why are we going back there?' There was like a whole minute of silence. Then everybody was talking at once, like, you know, 'Why are we going there?'"

The plane's pilot, West Point graduate Odom, 29, was also leery of the Colombian ride-alongs.

"Jennifer said they were always suspect," her husband said. "In that part of the world, they don't know who to trust." The Colombians are supposedly checked out and cleared by the U.S. Embassy, "but a quick background check down there doesn't mean much."

His wife had also quarreled privately with her commander, because the sad state of the equipment would require her to fly alone in Colombia, without the usual pairing with other aircraft. Since she was scheduled to take command of the unit in October, she argued that the unit should stand down and bring the aircraft up to snuff.

"The unit was overworked, undermanned, overextended," said Charles Odom.

"She felt it foolish to deploy simply for a show of force, with one aircraft. Also she felt it was dangerous to fly only one aircraft in a normally three-ship, mutually supporting configuration." Odom pressed for postponing the mission but was overruled. On July 13, she left for Colombia.

U.S. personnel at Apiay shared the base with Colombian air force and army units, who didn't always appreciate the efforts of their mentors. Colombian officers deplored the practice of their counterparts sharing meals with enlisted personnel. The Colombian Air Force commander "was very rude and difficult with Jennifer," a fellow pilot recalled, as well as with other U.S. pilots.

Another source of friction was that the Americans were under orders not to give the Colombians any intelligence they'd gathered on Marxist guerrilla groups while on counter-narcotics missions.

The rationale was -- and remains -- that the U.S. isn't at war with the rebels, only drug traffickers, although the distinction is quickly lost on U.S. personnel. Drugs are to Colombia what secret bank accounts are to Switzerland: the country's principal business, engaging every sector of the economy from transport to insurance. Government officials, army officers, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries alike are entwined in the illicit trade.

Since U.S. policy required that American units maintain the appearance of noninvolvement in the civil war, however, intelligence gathered on rebels during anti-narcotics missions is thus denied to local Colombian commanders, sources said, and instead sent to Washington.

Appearances aside, however, the intelligence eventually got back to the Colombians after it was processed in Washington, via the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, where it was shared with counterparts, at least some of them corrupt.

The system prompted U.S. military advisors in Colombia to avoid the embassy like the flu, according to one Green Beret sergeant. He said his unit, the 20th Special Forces Group, an Army Reserve outfit in Maryland that rotates into Colombia on training missions, avoided sharing mission plans or other data with "the embassy pukes" because they considered the environment insecure. Any useful intelligence they gathered was channeled to their own command at Fort Bragg, N.C., circumventing the embassy.

The Americans' distrust of the Colombians extended to training missions in the field, said the sergeant, who had also seen duty in Haiti and Somalia in the 1990s.

"The SEALs (U.S. Navy special operations forces) won't even let the Colombians on their boats," the sergeant alleged, on condition that his name not be disclosed, "and they're supposed to be training riverines.

"We don't have that choice, because there's a certification process we have to go through." (They must report to Washington that the Colombians have been trained and are aggressively combating drug traffic.) The sergeant said that in the field the Green Berets would camp several hundred meters from their charges because they didn't trust the Colombians, who, in any event, rarely deployed sentries or mines at night.

The Green Berets also suspected that the Colombian major in charge of the 1st Marine Brigade, the unit they were training, was secretly doubling as a right-wing paramilitary leader in league with a drug cartel.

"He completely avoided attacking the cocaine refineries," the sergeant said.

Meanwhile, spy plane crews at Apiay found themselves increasingly involved in a shooting war.

"I was just very uncomfortable about us going down there," said Dawn Smith, an Army spy pilot in Colombia during 1999-2000, "because we were supposed to be [in a condition of] low intensity, period. We were not supposed to be in a high-intensity environment." At night, she said, automatic rifle fire often crackled outside the perimeter. "And it was kind of primitive. They had just a low little barbed wire fence surrounding the grounds, and the place could've been overrun very easily. And we at first didn't even have any weapons."

But if the situation on the ground at Apiay was dicey, security in the air was hardly better, former unit personnel said. Increasingly, the spy planes were taking fire. More and more, they were being tracked through the night skies by ground-to-air missiles of the narco-guerrillas.

"Every time they came back from a mission," Jennifer's husband, Chuck Odom, recounted in a previous Salon story about her death, "there'd be small-arms bullet holes on the fuselage or the tail. I asked her about it, and she said, 'It's a dangerous place. We're always getting shot at and lit up (by missile radar).'

"It wasn't Colombian government radar," declared Odom, who'd had many sensitive assignments during his own Army career. "It was a missile lock" by someone armed with advanced, U.S.-made Stingers or foreign equivalents.

Dawn Smith and other pilots say their flights were compromised even before their wheels lifted off the runway. For starters, Colombian civil aviation authorities required all aircraft -- including spy missions -- to file flight plans. Thus, air controllers broadcast their progress through the skies.

The situation was crazy, pilots said.

"One time coming back from another country, you could tell they were giving our call sign to somebody else," Smith said. "We thought, 'Who are they talking to on the air? Why are they saying anything about us?' I didn't know that much Spanish, but I knew they were talking about us. So we felt that their ATC (air traffic control) was definitely giving out information about us ..."

In the end, Briana Krueger was able to avoid an assignment to return to Colombia in July of 1999, but her husband of one month, 20-year-old Ray, couldn't, or wouldn't, resist.

"I told him before he left that I didn't want him to go," Briana recalled. "We were talking about breaking his arms so he wouldn't be able to go. I just felt really uncomfortable that he was going. He said, like, 'Orders are orders.'"

On the night of July 30 the flight took off from a Colombian military base at Apiay. Its lone runway, set in a high meadow and buffeted by wind, rain and fog off the Andes, had a lot of customers, from the 204th's Dash-7's to CIA, DEA and U.S. Customs Service aircraft. Sometime after 3 a.m. that same night, Odom and her crew crashed into the side of a steep mountain near the border with Ecuador. All were killed. The plane wreckage, already pulverized by the crash, was blown up by a Delta team from the U.S. Embassy. The Army said neither of the two flight data recorders was working.

While the military disputes Chuck Odom and Briana Krueger's theories about the role of Colombian drug collaborators in their spouses' death, it's clear the losses had one impact: Anti-drug generals in Washington have stepped up the recruitment of civilians to fight the war, to minimize the political fallout more U.S. military deaths could cause back home.

To some extent, the strategy worked: When three pilots employed by Dyncorp of Reston, Va., died in Colombia a few years ago, it hardly made the news. According to military sources, the U.S. employs about 70 "contractors" in Colombia, but there are many more in border regions, such as Iquitos in northern Peru, working as military advisors, mechanics and pilots. They're coming in for more scrutiny now, however, thanks to the death of Veronica and Charity Bowers.

Since her husband's death, Briana Krueger has left the military and is trying to get on with her life; she'd like to open a restaurant. When she thinks back on her time in Colombia, she says simply: "We're just wasting our time doing this."

Chuck Odom wishes the Bowers family well, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding its loved ones' deaths, but his voice reflects his weariness. "You never get over something like this," he says. "You learn to deal with it, to live with it ... I just march along every day."

Reflecting on the conflicting accounts of the Bowers tragedy coming from Peru and Washington, Odom said sadly, "It sounds like business as usual down there."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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