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Drug war disaster

International | In its zeal to stop drug smugglers, Peru's military, backed by the CIA, shot down a missionary plane, killing two people. Will the drug war be the next casualty?

Issue: "Target: Taiwan," May 5, 2001

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.

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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.

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