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Drug war disaster

"Drug war disaster" Continued...

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

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.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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