Deadly mistake

Why did the Peruvian military shoot down a plane full of innocent people -- and why was the CIA involved?

Published April 24, 2001 7:35PM (EDT)

The place where Colombia, Peru and Ecuador come together is the greatest cocaine-trafficking air corridor in the world. Small aircraft regularly fly coca paste across the Andes Mountains from Peru.

That's why a CIA plane, contracted to do intelligence as part of a drug interdiction operation with the Peruvian government, suspected on Friday that a small Cessna carrying a family of Baptist missionaries was running drugs.

According to statements by a U.S. intelligence official, the three-person U.S. surveillance crew, who were civilian contract employees of the CIA, informed a Peruvian A-37 fighter jet on patrol about its suspicions, but asked it to check its identity before taking any action. The U.S. crew communicated only with the Peruvian air force liaison on board the surveillance plane. By agreement, U.S. personnel are not in the Peruvian chain of command and have no authority to control their actions. Despite the American objections, the Peruvian officer on board the CIA plane instructed the jet crew to fire on the suspicious Cessna, according to the official.

Many questions still linger about what exactly led to the fatal events. But onlookers say that they saw the jet fire machine-gun rounds into the Cessna, and watched the tiny plane crash into the river. Though Peruvian onlookers were able to rescue the Cessna's pilot from the water, Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, had already been killed -- according to reports, a single bullet passed through the child's skull as she sat in her mother's lap, then entered the mother's body.

Why did they die, and what could have prevented this terrible event? Very few questions have been answered at this point, and it will likely be weeks before an investigation can offer the public more information.

Contributing to the confusion is the fact that drug interdiction flights, like all of our military anti-narcotics operations in Latin America, are secretive and complex. They involve not only the military operations of the home governments, which themselves lack transparency, but an elaborate system of U.S. foreign aid from a variety of agencies, including the departments of Defense and State, the U.S. Customs Service, the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency, which provide host nations with military training, equipment and intelligence. Making matters even murkier is the presence of numerous American mercenaries, hired as freelance pilots, ground crews and intelligence personnel by both the host nations and the United States.

In the past five years, Peru has reportedly shot down roughly 30 planes it suspected of drug running, and grounded many more. Coca cultivation in the Andean nation has fallen by as much as 60 percent as a result of joint U.S.-Peru anti-drug efforts, whose main focus is air interception, the U.S. administration said.

On Monday, the Bush administration ordered U.S. surveillance flights suspended pending an official investigation. But, anxious to avoid jeopardizing an interdiction program that has been, at least in its immediate region, a rare success, the administration downplayed the event, acknowledging that it was a "tragic error" but calling it an "isolated incident." The administration stopped short of blaming the Peruvian government, but said its military failed to follow proper rules of engagement, and that it acted too hastily by firing against the plane.

The Peruvian military denied any wrongdoing, saying it followed proper procedure -- leaving unanswered the question of how a procedure could be "proper" that resulted in the death of innocent civilians.

The Bowers tragedy throws a spotlight on the $48 million in narcotics control aid that the U.S. government gave to Peru last year, as well as the $32 million that came as part of Plan Colombia, the military anti-narcotics campaign implemented last year in Andean drug-producing nations. It is certain to lead to hard questions about the viability of American participation in the interdiction program -- questions concerning not just the competence of America's military partners in the region but the sprawling, internecine war on coca production itself, a war critics charge is unwinnable. Despite the fact that coca production in Peru has dropped, coca production in the region as a whole has increased, as growers pressured out of Peru have moved into Colombia.

Salon asked Adam Isacson, a senior associate at Washington's Center for International Policy, what this tragedy can tell us about our involvement in the drug war.

Is Peru the only government that has a policy to shoot down planes involved in drug trafficking? And what is the role of the U.S. in that policy?

What we do is hand off the intelligence to that country's military, and it's really up to them what they do with it. Peru has chosen to shoot down. It's often called jokingly the "You fly, you die" policy. Colombia says they shoot down, but they don't do it very often. What they do more often is just sort of force down planes and then strafe them on the ground. Venezuela hasn't done much of anything lately. But the real air transit point is between Peru and Colombia, from the growing areas to the processing areas.

Why does Peru have that policy?

I imagine they adopted that policy with a lot of encouragement from the United States back in the mid-'90s. Certainly we were pleased when [disgraced former President Alberto] Fujimori and [fugitive former spy chief Vladimiro] Montesinos adopted that policy.

What do you make of all the confusion between the Cessna, the CIA plane and the Peruvian jet?

We're not going to know that for a while; that's going to be for the investigation. When we hand over this sort of intelligence to the Peruvians, though, there's either an implied or a specific agreement that they are going to follow procedures -- trying to communicate with the plane, dipping your wings, shooting a warning shot. It doesn't look like they did any of that.

It looks like they just fired?

That's what we're hearing from the first eyewitness accounts. If that's true, than it's more than just a few miscommunications. It's a complete neglect of what they've been told to do. We're just not going to know until they do a real investigation.

If this mission was part of our anti-narcotics aid to Peru, why was the CIA involved?

It's inter-agency, they like to say. The defense department is supposed to be in the lead on this, but of course the CIA are one of the many agencies involved. And since they have access to a lot of the good equipment, it makes sense that that was a CIA plane. I'm not sure, but I think there was a private contractor involved too, whether they own the plane or whether they were pilots -- pilots are always in short supply -- I'm not sure yet what their role was. But there were CIA and contractors and a Peruvian air force official on board the plane that was watching that gave the information to the jet.

What does this tragedy draw our attention to?

More than anything, I think it just draws attention to the militaries we're working with in that region. The fact that this was done with U.S. intelligence, with a plane given by the U.S., by pilots and airmen trained and equipped by the U.S. -- everything there was paid for, bought and sold by us. The A-37 was given to Peru for counternarcotics purposes.

It's time that we started looking a little more closely at who we're giving this stuff to. These are institutions with long histories of corruption and human rights abuses. So that obviously calls into question their professionalism and what they can be relied on to do. We may be lucky that this hasn't happened before.

Are these interdiction missions part of Plan Colombia?

This predates Plan Colombia, it's something they've been doing since at least the mid-'90s, but it is being beefed up somewhat by the money that was in last year's Plan Colombia aid package. Again, I'm not sure where the intelligence plane took off from, but it probably took off from this site in Manta, Ecuador, which is getting a lot of money for refurbishment and construction from the Plan Colombia aid package.

What other countries do these flight missions?

Looking for suspicious aircraft is something we do really everywhere from Bolivia all the way up to the border of Mexico. It's most intense, though, in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, where obviously the cocaine comes out of first and also where a lot of the coca paste gets taken to be processed into crystal cocaine -- that's what a lot of the flights going out of Peru do.

Does this relate at all to the flight that killed U.S. Army pilot Jennifer Odom in Colombia last year?

That plane was doing signals intelligence -- they were actually listening in to stuff going on on the ground. Whereas this one was doing visual, looking up signals that had already been found by radar sites within the region, trying to ID the plane, I think. So it's a little different, but it's part of the same effort. It's all counterdrug and all gathering intelligence by air. The Jennifer Odom plane was certainly a lot more sophisticated than what the CIA was using.

Peru has certainly gone through a lot of big changes in the past year, including the corruption scandal that brought down President Alberto Fujimori and his spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos. How is that affecting the counternarcotics efforts in Peru?

To the best I can tell, it's not having much effect on what's going on. All the political turmoil is in Lima, on the coast, and most of the counternarcotics stuff is happening well over the Andes. For most Peruvians, it might as well be on a different planet. So the work with those particular units of the police, the air force, the navy, has probably remained about the same.

Actually, now that Fujimori is gone, it's probably a little more politically palatable to start jacking up military aid, which is something that's going to happen in 2002 if you look at George Bush's request. The only thing that might have been disrupted over the past few months is the fact that many of the officers loyal to Montesinos were forced out. So there may be some intelligence gathering and command and control [may] have been disrupted a little bit. But that's probably the only way it's been weakened.

How has the implementation of Plan Colombia affected Peru?

Last year, the only money in Plan Colombia for Peru was about $32 million for helicopters. Since Peru had just stolen an election, it wasn't really politically palatable or possible to give it to them. But they're going to get more next year.

A lot of people are speculating that most of the aid for Colombia's military is being concentrated in an area right along Colombia's border with Ecuador and Peru, that we're going to be pushing not just drug trafficking but also violence and refugees into Ecuador and Peru. So we may see an increase in coca and violence on the other side of the border.

That spillover is a big worry about Plan Colombia -- that's probably one reason why they're proposing $90 million in military aid for Peru now. You push the coca growers out of one place, coca's still profitable, so they might just cross the river and start cutting down jungle on the Peruvian side.

Does that military response have anything to do with their "shoot 'em out of the sky" approach?

I think that attitude has been around for a while now. They've shot down about 30 planes in the past five years or so.

Why don't we hear more about them? Have there been any more Americans killed, or any conflicts in the air between drug trafficking planes and intelligence or military planes?

If there have been dogfights in the air, I don't know about them. I think usually they're shooting down these little Cessna planes. According to official U.S. reports, they've always been narcos, and we've had no basis to challenge that and we've been assured that when they do shoot them down, it's after trying to contact them several times, trying to signal to them in the air, firing warning shots, and only if they keep going do they shoot them down or force them down. But this mistake last week makes you wonder how often they are asking questions first before they shoot.

In general, this whole operation happens with almost no transparency. You're asking me some very basic questions here and I'm still only able to give you very basic answers. Why is the CIA involved? What are these contractors? How do they chose their targets? We don't know and nobody's really asking.

Who is in charge of the oversight of these missions?

The oversight eventually falls on Congress -- the international relations and armed services committees that are paying for this stuff. When staffers go down there they get flown to these bases and shown some select professional troops and a PowerPoint presentation telling them how effective they've been. But nobody asks questions about how we can avoid situations like this one.

Rather than have congressional staff, who are really overworked and underpaid, do all of this, [the agencies] should be forced to make information about this more and more accessible, so that there could be more of an evaluation of where we're headed with this.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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