TOPICS > Politics

Tragic Mishap

April 23, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: It was a sad homecoming Sunday in North Carolina for Jim Bowers and his son Corey. They survived an attack by a Peruvian fighter working in tandem with a CIA plane. Killed in the shoot down were Jim’s wife, Veronica, and the family’s infant daughter, Charity. For the past seven years, the Bowers have worked in Peru for the organization Baptists for World Evangelism. The pilot, missionary Kevin Donaldson, also survived the crash, and is being treated in the U.S. for leg wounds. Donaldson and the Bowers family were flying the missionary group’s twin-engine Cessna aircraft.

On Thursday Donaldson flew them from their home base, Iquitos, to the town of Islandia, near the Brazilian/Colombian border. They then took a boat across the Amazon to Leticia, Colombia, to get a permanent visa for their adopted daughter. On their return flight the next day, a Peruvian fighter intercepted and shot down the Cessna, suspecting it of carrying drugs into Peru. Donaldson made an emergency landing on the Amazon. Also in the air at that time: A U.S. surveillance jet carrying a crew of C.I.A. contract employees and a Peruvian air force officer. That jet told the Peruvians about the small plane. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher spoke about the incident today.

RICHARD BOUCHER: We’ve provided assistance to Peru in detecting and monitoring suspect aircraft that are passing through certain designated sensitive airspace, in an effort to control the flow of illegal drugs. Our aircraft provide location data about airplanes that are flying in the region, those that are apparently without flight plans. We hand off this location data to the Peruvian air force. In this particular situation, we acquired information on an aircraft. We passed it through the Peruvian liaison officer who was aboard our plane to the Peruvian authorities, and then we remained in the area while the events occurred.

RAY SUAREZ: The US surveillance flights were suspended pending an investigation. Over the weekend, Peru’s Foreign Minister, Javier Perez de Cuellar said, “the Peruvian authorities are responsible, and we regret what happened.” At the same time, Peru’s air force defended its action, and said the missionary plane had no flight plan, entered Peruvian airspace unannounced, and didn’t respond to radio signals. But the missionary group says the Americans had a flight plan, and that their plane was easily identifiable by the dove painted on its side, as well as its registry number.

REV. E.C. HASKELL: The pilot was in radio contact with that tower at the time the shooting actually began. The tower people heard that and were aware of what was going on over the radio. Apparently, as best we understand it, our pilot was on a different channel in communication with the tower at the time the military planes had apparently attempted to contact him on another channel.

RAY SUAREZ: For more than five years, the US has cooperated with the Peruvian air force as part of a program to eradicate that country’s coca crop, as well as intercept drug shipments. But in 1995, Congress passed legislation saying such flights should continue only if cooperating countries take appropriate procedures to protect innocent life in the air and on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the shooting down of an American missionary plane over Peru we turn to Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, and Major Andy Messing, executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation. He retired from the army in 1987. Let’s begin with a little history of this program.

How long have American supplied flights been in the air over Peru, Peter?

PETER HAKIM: Well, I don’t know the precise date. But let me say as part of a broader strategy that the US works out country by country, particularly in the Andean region, the three major supply countries, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, works out a plan to reduce narcotics production, narcotics exports from each country, country by country, and this turns out to be a problem that in each country we’ve had some success in Peru, some considerable success, great success in Bolivia, and now the narcotics have moved to Colombia where they are fueling a guerrilla war.

The question is, in some ways, as the history of this hub and spoke, this by lateral narcotics approach, whether we shouldn’t now begin to think much more seriously about a regional approach to this; that if we don’t do a regional approach we’re going to run into a continuing problem that the production is going to move from country to country.

RAY SUAREZ: Andy Messing, I think a lot of people were surprised to find out over the weekend that the information on the whereabouts of this plane was supplied by American supported personnel. Tell us more about it.

MAJOR ANDY MESSING (Ret.): Well, in 1992 is when this program first started, this shoot down policy, and was suspended for a while. And they retooled it and by late ’94 into ’95 that’s when the Peruvians did it. It’s a highly successful program as Secretary Colin Powell said in that previous interview. It had over 30 planes put down as a result, either forced down or shot down, somewhere in that figure.

And that has meant tens of tons of cocaine, cocaine products didn’t go to further processing and packaging and transport to the United States and other places, and Europe possibly. So thousands of lives were saved by the idea of that, the air bridge was interdicted, but unfortunately you also have a river bridge, you also have a land bridge, and you also have a sea bridge coming out of Peru. And whether they’re all being dealt with with equal ferocity and effort is questionable. And this incident highlights this particular aspect also.

RAY SUAREZ: Why are there CIA contractors doing that work, is it beyond the current technical ability of the Peruvians?

MAJOR ANDY MESSING (Ret.): Well, the American military can do it. They have the capability. As a matter of fact you may recall about a year ago an RC-7 wound up crashing in Colombia and they were doing the same kind of surveillance and also traffic stuff and things like this. The idea that the contractors were involved, that always distresses me. I think it should be American military or CIA employees directly because of the fact that the indigenous personnel have more respect for our people that are directly associated with our government than they do with contractors.

And I think you’ll find when this investigation is finished, that there’s probably a screaming match inside that airplane between the Peruvian liaison officer and air force officer and the contractors, with the Peruvian finally making the decision to, you know, to accentuate this thing and causing this incredibly tragic event to occur. But don’t forget — we’ve also had an American C 130 that was strafed and an American crew chief killed several years by the Peruvians. So this isn’t the first incident.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary Powell, Peter Hakim, called this a successful program that now has been marred by this tragedy. Do you agree with him that this is a successful program?

PETER HAKIM: Without sort of being too nitpicking, the question is what is success. Surely you’re right, if you’ve interdicted 30 planes you’ve reduced the traffic in drugs by airplane out of Peru, no doubt it served as an important deterrent, the very existence of this program. No question about all that. The question, though, is has the flow of drugs really been reduced into the United States, into Europe. And all the evidence at least from the price of cocaine on the streets, whether it’s Washington or Los Angeles, wherever, the flow of drugs hasn’t really been reduced very much at all. And indeed even the amount of, the idea of intercepting plane flights is to reduce the amount of crops being grown in Peru ultimately.

In other words do you cut off the market forgetting the stuff out of Peru and moving into Colombia and North. And certainly the amount of land production, production in coca leave, the forerunner of cocaine, has been reduced enormously in Peru, and this program is part of that effort. The problem is that it hasn’t been reduced in the three countries that make up this Andean region where most of the stuff is grown. It’s been shifted North. The Colombia coca importers instead of going to Peru and buying the stuff began to buy it from local producers. There’s been a great expansion in production in Colombia.

MAJOR ANDY MESSING (Ret.): The satellite on those comments — in Colombia alone, there’s been over 300,000 acres of pristine jungle torched, cut down, and tens of millions of animals killed and head waters of the Amazon polluted by precursor chemicals for the production of cocaine. The environmental devastation to the lungs of our world is phenomenal. And there’s — I think there was a quarter million acres in Peru at the height of their production.

RAY SUAREZ: But given what Peter Hakim just said and your points following on, does the way this program is being managed make the skies over these countries more dangerous for people who aren’t up to no good — like this evangelical flight?

MAJOR ANDY MESSING (Ret.): The evangelical flight had occurred, the pilot obviously knew about this policy — because it’s widely broadcast down there. The fact that the Peruvians didn’t go completely, it’s obviously there’s some sort of Peruvian mistake here, they either didn’t follow through with the procedures, firing warning shots, making sure they established either visual or radio communications, there some major screw up on the part of the Peruvians, and they are not going to readily admit it by any means.

RAY SUAREZ: Will evidence be produced? Is there a way that we can know what happened?

MAJOR ANDY MESSING (Ret.): The NSA will have radio transcripts, the CIA plane will have transcripts, and the Peruvian air force will have transcripts. And there may be even some commercial group that recorded this. So the evidence is going to wind up coming out of Chile. It’s almost like the China thing where people are screaming and running around in circles. But eventually the evidence came out which proved the essential points — and that’s what’s going to happen here.

PETER HAKIM: Almost certainly the Peruvians screwed up. The foreign minister in Peru formally apologized for that, admitted that screw up. But remember, the person that gave the order was sitting on a US plane at the time. This was a US program, these people were trained by US people. It’s -

MAJOR ANDY MESSING (Ret.): He didn’t give the order.

PETER HAKIM: He sort of instructed the fighter plane that it was okay to fire.

MAJOR ANDY MESSING (Ret.): No, that’s not the case. The Peruvian air force ground commander gave the thing. But he was part of it. And that’s not a bad point.

PETER HAKIM: Okay. My point is simply that the US and Peru on this program were very much entangled. I don’t think there was bad faith on anybody’s part. This probably was an accident due to misunderstanding, inexperience. But simply to put the blame on one side or the other is very much a mistake. I think that the whole entanglement, whether it was poor training, poor instruction, misunderstanding, it was all part of a — sort of a one program. And I think both governments have to bear blame for this.

RAY SUAREZ: But is this an entanglement that the United States enters into so as not to use its own military, so as not to use its own uniformed personnel.

MAJOR ANDY MESSING (Ret.): Yes. And I think that’s a major mistake. I think any time you have this type of major high-risk involvement, there should be American military or direct governmental personnel, like CIA operatives themselves. There shouldn’t be this cutout of contractors, because they’re not subject to the UCMJ, and, you know, there are all kinds of other ramifications. The indigenous personnel certainly don’t respect them as much as if we had had like an Air Force major on that airplane talking to his counterpart. I think that may have gone a different way. So the problem is you got to get the American President and the new drug czar, who incidentally this guy Walters is a pretty good guy, to wind up making the case to the American people that we’ve got to do this kind of thing.

RAY SUAREZ: A quick final point.

PETER HAKIM: A quick, let me just ask, this was a drug smuggling plane, would we have been justified to shoot it out of the sky? Would an American military plane have done that? I think there are real questions whether the US should be assisting in a program that it itself would not carry out on American soil.

MAJOR ANDY MESSING (Ret.): Well, I don’t necessarily agree with that, because what they’re doing in violation of Peruvian, American and international law, and they’re killing Americans, making crack babies and creating crime. I mean, you know, you can go into the whole reasoning for why you have a drug war.

PETER HAKIM: But there’s a presumption of innocence.

MAJOR ANDY MESSING (Ret.): — why they have a drug war. If they’re established you can visually detect that there’s product in the back of the airplane and that these guys are, that the serial number has been traced to this kind of activity, you know, it’s – they’re fair game.

RAY SUAREZ: Major Andy Messing, Peter Hakim, good to talk to you both. Thank you.