When Baptist missionaries arrived in the upper Amazon after World War II, they had little protection from the elements save a shortwave radio and a shotgun to ward off the 15-foot anacondas.
Over 50 years and many thousands of Christian converts later, the mission workers are aware once again of just how tenuous life in the remote jungle wetlands can be. On April 20 a Peruvian Air Force jet opened fire on a single-engine Cessna owned by the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE). Strafing the private floatplane, which he suspected of drug running, the Peruvian pilot instead killed 35-year-old Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity. Mrs. Bowers and her family were en route to the closest consulate in order to obtain a visa for newly adopted Charity.
What is an unprecedented tragedy for the conservative ABWE, based in Harrisburg, Pa., is an unwanted international incident for the Bush administration and congressional Republicans who have been cheering a stepped-up drug war in South America's cocaine corridor. The shootdown made public for the first time the routine use of U.S. surveillance planes to lend radar coverage to Peru's airborne drug busters. A plane contracted by the CIA accompanied the Peruvian jet April 20 and was the first to draw attention to the Cessna. U.S. agents onboard warned against the shootdown but did nothing to stop it.
Bullets fired by the Peruvian jet killed Mrs. Bowers and her daughter instantly. They also shattered the legs of pilot Kevin Donaldson, who underwent extensive surgery in Pennsylvania after the incident. He is expected to undergo further surgery and up to a year's recuperation. Despite those injuries, Mr. Donaldson, a 20-year veteran of mission aviation and river landings, was able to direct the plane onto the waters of an Amazon tributary after the shootdown. Mrs. Bowers's husband Jim and her 6-year-old son Cory were unharmed, and they returned to the United States for funeral services one week after the incident.
Although the Cessna single-engine is a plane often used by drug smugglers, family and colleagues of the missionaries maintain there was no reason for mistaken identity. Mr. Donaldson flew at normal altitude, in a straight path, and remained in Peruvian airspace. He also, according to ABWE officials, maintained radio contact with the civilian air tower in Iquitos, Peru, and filed a detailed flight plan. ABWE posted the flight plan on its website after Peruvian authorities began casting doubt on the pilot's account. They say Mr. Donaldson did not file a flight plan and did not respond to radio communication from the Air Force pilot.
The incident puts drug-war advocates in the hot seat. Drug-enforcement officials say Peru's policy of intercepting and shooting down drug-running planes has helped to cut coca production in Peru by two-thirds since 1995. Peruvian jet fighters have shot down 30 planes believed to be carrying the substance during that time-deterring the easiest method of transporting coca leaf from jungle highlands to Colombia processing cartels. But even advocates acknowledge that the policy carries risks. At one point the Clinton administration terminated U.S. intelligence assistance to the effort because it feared criminal liability in the event of an accidental shooting.
The flashiness of the shootdown policy may obscure the need to fight traditional smuggling. "No doubt Peru air interdiction policy has cut the air bridge, but they have not cut the sea routes or land routes. As long as you don't work on those routes, cocaine will still get through," said Andy Messing, director of the National Defense Council Foundation and a drug-war veteran.
Pressed by over 16,000 drug-related deaths annually in the United States, lawmakers over the last decade have emphasized fighting illegal drugs at their source. The first Bush administration in 1989 approved the Andean Strategy, which included an increase in military, law enforcement, and economic aid to the Andean countries of Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. More recently, Republicans in Congress and the Clinton administration tripled aid for counternarcotics efforts in the region to nearly $300 million a year, with most of that going to Colombia. The countries spend the money primarily on military hardware, but millions have also gone into crop substitution and eradication programs.
The heavy expenditures have reduced cocaine production and the amount of illegal drugs moving north. But critics say that, as long as demand in the United States remains constant, the trade will simply move somewhere else. That migration became increasingly noticeable to ABWE missionaries over the last decade. Traffickers are transporting coca leaf to processing plants in Colombia and Brazil along the same waterways that the missionaries use to reach unevangelized villages.
In the tender aftermath of the tragedy, counternarcotics experts worry that confiscations of cocaine will suffer. "Every time you stop a ton of cocaine," said Mr. Messing, "you stop $1 billion in damage to the United States." Planes similar to the Cessna flown by ABWE can transport up to a ton of cocaine. But the air surveillance program was suspended in the wake of the shootdown. "This tragic loss of innocent life in this one case needs to be viewed in the overall context of the critical drug problem facing our nation," said Rep. Benjamin Gilman, who chaired the House International Relations committee until last year and oversaw the counternarcotics legislation. The State Department on April 25 announced it was suspending support of air intercepts not only in Peru, but also in Colombia.
Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia together account for nearly all the cocaine that enters the United States. That same region drew ABWE missionaries, beginning just after World War II. They planted churches and evangelized local tribes along the Amazon reaches including Peru, Colombia, and northwestern Brazil. By 1961, ABWE sent its first plane to connect the isolated mission stations that were prospering along the Amazon and its tributaries. The plane service provided a needed link with Iquitos, the largest nearby city in Peru, where the organization established a school and could obtain supplies. The first pilots were Hank Scheltema, who-as ABWE's director of aviation ministries-suddenly found himself a spokesman to dozens of reporters last week, and Terry Bowers, father of Jim Bowers.
A commitment to strict conservative theology-most ABWE missionaries are supported by the traditionally fundamentalist General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARB)-is the core of church planting and humanitarian programs that have thrived in the harsh Amazon environment. ABWE churches now number approximately 150 in the area. Mr. Bowers and his wife have lived on a houseboat in the Amazon since 1993, traveling to riverside villages where he preached and she taught Bible lessons and reading. Members of Calvary Church in Muskegon, Mich., a GARB congregation, built the two-story houseboat in a barn belonging to a church member and shipped it to Peru in sections.
Many workers, like Mr. Bowers and Mr. Donaldson, are second-generation missionaries who moved easily among the tribes despite the volatility of drug trafficking and terrorism. Most of the missionaries speak Spanish and Portugese, along with local Indian languages. Many of these workers persevered in regions dominated by Peru's outlawed Shining Path guerrilla movement. At the same time, ABWE aircraft have been used by Colombian and Brazilian government officials to ferry humanitarian aid along Amazon tributaries.
Both ABWE officers and other mission aviators in the region say Mr. Donaldson is well known in the region and is acquainted with airport procedures, as well as with the Air Force regulations in Peru and specific requirements for operating near drug trafficking routes. Mr. Donaldson had recently renovated the aircraft, according to Mr. Scheltema, installing a new engine and giving the Cessna a paint job. Prominently featured on both wings and the tail are the plane's Peruvian registration number, OB 1408.
According to a missionary colleague, Mr. Donaldson encountered Peruvian Air Force drug-busters about four years ago. After communicating with them via the airport tower, they let him pass. This time, Mr. Bowers told investigators, the Air Force jet attacked the flight without making any radio or visual contact beforehand.
Members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence summoned CIA director George Tenet to brief them on the incident shortly after it took place. The CIA reportedly has audiotapes and radar recordings of the unfolding incident, but did not immediately release them. A House narcotics subcommittee is expected to hold a further investigative hearing in late April. The State Department also announced that it will conduct a joint investigation with Peru.
In a thank-you note to supporters posted on ABWE's website, Mr. Bowers said he will not speak publicly about the shootdown until after funeral and memorial services for his wife and daughter. "I am trusting that the publicity will eventually agree with what I know to be the truth," he said.