License to Kill

The (drug) war on civilians in Peru

By Dave Kopel, research director, & Mike Krause, a research associate, at the Independence Institute.

National Review Online. August 16, 2001 10:15 a.m.

Also by Kopel: Losing the War on Terrorism in Peru: The U.S. government has undermined the war on terrorism in Peru. National Review Online, Mar. 22, 2002.

In April, a Peruvian-U.S. military anti-drug operation shot down a civilian plane, killing a family of American missionaries. Authorities promised a full investigation. But their official report, newly released, dodges accountability with a verve that would make Reno and Danforth proud. The message is clear: Legal accountability for killings has been eliminated, lest it hinder the work of drug warriors.

On April 20, 2001, at about 9:30 a.m., a Cessna floatplane (tail number OB-1408), owned by the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE), took off from Islandia, Peru, on the Amazon River near the borders of Peru, Brazil and Colombia. The plane took a westerly course along the Amazon, bound for Iquitos, Peru. On board were Americans James and Veronica Bowers (missionaries with the ABWE), their daughter Charity and son Cory, and pilot Kevin Donaldson (also with the ABWE). The Bowers had been in nearby Leticia, Colombia to obtain a residence visa for Charity, whom they had recently adopted.

A little over an hour later, the Cessna was hit with two bursts from the mini-guns of a Peruvian Air Force A-37 interceptor aircraft, flying in a joint Peruvian-U.S. Counternarcotics "Airbridge Denial Program."

The 7.62 caliber slugs ripped through the Cessna, killing Veronica and Charity, wounding pilot Donaldson, and forcing an emergency landing. Under the program — according to the State Department — some 39 aircraft have been shot or forced down in the last seven years.

On August 2, 2001, the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (the drug-war wing of the U.S. State Department) released an investigation report on the matter, which is euphemistically termed the "Peruvian Shootdown Accident." The ABWE promptly responded with an annotated version, with the official report in one column, and corrections to its errors and distortions in another.

The investigative team for the official report was specifically "not authorized" to either "question witnesses under oath or receive sworn testimony." Nor were they to "examine misconduct or fix blame." In other words, the investigators were prevented from conducting a real investigation. While formally barred from assigning responsibility, however, the investigators still attempted to scapegoat missionary pilot Kevin Donaldson — even though his only mistake was to occupy airspace where government agents had been given a license to kill.

Section 1012 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1995 (public law 103-337): grants "immunity for host nation employees and agents interdicting aircraft and U.S. Agents assisting foreign nations in the interdiction of aircraft when there is 'reasonable suspicion' that the aircraft is primarily engaged in illicit drug trafficking."

Legally speaking, "reasonable suspicion" is a far lower standard than the probable cause the Fourth Amendment requires for searches and seizures. If your local sheriff has merely a "reasonable suspicion" you're selling drugs, he can't search your house. If Peruvian-U.S. military forces have that same suspicion, they can blow you out of the sky.

"Reasonable suspicion" in the drug war recalls to mind James Bond's License to Kill. As in the movie, the National Defense Authorization Act of 1995 imagines that its license to kill will be used only against "evil drug lords." But the reality is that, when government can kill with impunity, missionaries and children get killed too.

Nor were the accident investigators merely forbidden to assign blame. They were also barred from making "a recommendation or determination with regard to the suspension or start up of counternarcotics aerial intercept operations in Peru." The team leaders of the "investigations" were the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the Commander of Peruvian Air Force Operations. In other words, two of the top cops in the joint Peruvian-U.S. drug war don't get to make recommendations as to whether the shootdowns should continue. No sense in allowing investigators to look at root causes.

The investigators were, however, specifically tasked with "Making recommendations, if any, to the appropriate authorities as to modifications that might be required to minimize a possible repetition of this incident." By U.S. law, one requirement for the "reasonable suspicion" immunity is "effective means to identify and warn an aircraft before the use of force is directed against the aircraft." While the report shows the drug warriors did attempt to identify and warn the aircraft, their means were anything but effective.

The missionaries' Cessna became a "suspect aircraft" because it supposedly did not have a flight plan — although, in fact, it did. Pilot Donavan filed a round-trip flight plan via telephone with the Iquitos, Peru civilian flight tower, and notified them when he started the trip. The Cessna was shot down on the return leg. Indeed, no flight plan was activated when the Cessna left Islandia, but for good reason. In an interview with Reuters, David Southwell of the ABWE states — and the official report fails to mention — that "no flight plan could be activated in Islandia because they do not even have electricity there. So it could not be activated with the Iquitos tower until you got within a normal range of 50 miles." The Cessna was shot down before that.

According to the report, Phase One contact was attempted, unsuccessfully, over VHF radio. Pilot Donaldson testified that his VHF radio was turned off and he was monitoring his HF radio. (He also testified that he could only use one radio at a time.) This makes sense because he was outside the 50-mile normal range of Iquitos's control tower: His wife monitored HF back at their home.

Moreover, the Cessna was deemed suspect because, on several occasions, it flew into Brazilian airspace. But according to Donaldson, he was only trying to stay within a glide path of the Amazon, in case he should have to make an emergency landing.

The official report explains that "Despite its steady altitude and general flight path deeper into Peru, the characteristics of the flight generated suspicion within the Peruvian-U.S. counternarcotics aircraft that it was a narcotics aircraft."

Actually, the characteristics in question just reflected a conscientious pilot using local knowledge and custom to reduce the risks inherent in flying a small plane through an isolated area. If you fly, as a careful pilot would fly, over Peru and Brazil, you're fitting yourself into the Peruvian-U.S. "profile" of a drug smuggler (reminiscent of the airline-passenger "profiles" also employed by drug warriors, by which passengers who get off early, middle, or late are all said to fit a "drug courier profile"). The difference is that, in the United States, American passengers who fit the "profile" just get subjected to full body cavity searches. In South America, they get killed.

Prior to shooting down the Cessna, the A-37 fired warning shots, but as the report shows, the speed of the Cessna was less than the stall speed of the A-37, and the tracer rounds were fired from a "nose up" trajectory, and from behind — making it virtually impossible for the Cessna pilot to see them. Thus the means used to "identify and warn" were utterly ineffective. One wonders how many of the other aircraft shot down over the last decade were "identified" and "warned" using the same techniques?

The report shows that the American military contract pilots repeatedly tried to stop the A-37 from firing on the Cessna. But their cries of "No Mas" went unheeded. And as the report makes clear, the job of the U.S. pilots is to detect and track suspect aircraft; the U.S. pilots are "not in the chain of command and have no role in decisions regarding how intercepts are completed."

So the U.S. wasn't immediately in control of the pulling of the trigger. But even this doesn't address the bigger question of why we created a policy of shooting down civilian aircraft in the first place — or, on days when the "reasonable suspicion" turns out to be correct, of executing suspected drug traffickers. Since when did allegedly smuggling cocaine become punishable by death? By death without trial?

One reason for the policy, it turns out, is that while Bill Clinton was gearing up for his re-election campaign, his advisors worried that Republicans would raise "the character issue." Clinton needed to prove his stern morality on drugs, and so he began ramping up spending for the drug war — especially military spending. Veronica and Charity Bowers, then, join the long list of females who had to be destroyed, one way or another, to make the world safe for Bill Clinton.

The investigators concluded that the shootdown resulted from, among other things, a breakdown in communications and language limitations, and a deterioration of controls and procedures over the years. But anytime you have a war, bureaucratic bungling is inevitable — and it's all the more inevitable when historically corrupt, brutal, and inept entities like the Peruvian or Columbian military are involved.

In South America, the "drug war" is no metaphor. It's a real, live shooting war in which civilians routinely become collateral losses. Usually, though, the victims are Latin Americans rather than U.S. Americans, and so the press pays no attention. The lives of these innocent bystanders, who don't even use drugs, are the price paid for our vain attempt to protect American drug users from their own foolishness. 

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