Pubdate: Fri, 03 Aug 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Author: Bob Drogin, Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Peruvian Aircraft Shooting)


Latin America: Inquiry Reveals That Language Problems, Procedural Errors By 
Cia Crew And Peruvian Military Contributed To Accident.

WASHINGTON -- The tiny white Cessna soars gently over the endless expanse 
of jungle, silhouetted by heavy gray clouds above and shining sinews of the 
mighty Amazon River far below.

But the single-engine float plane, carrying three American Baptist 
missionaries and two children, also is targeted in the cross hairs of an 
infrared video camera mounted beneath a CIA-contract surveillance jet 
searching for drug runners in Peru.

The video is reality television at its most chilling: After 45 minutes of 
often-appalling confusion and misinformation -- compounded by the 
three-member CIA civilian crew speaking broken Spanish to an 
often-uncomprehending Peruvian liaison officer on board -- an accompanying 
Peruvian A-37 fighter jet is ordered to shoot down the plane. "They're 
killing me! They're killing us!" missionary pilot Kevin Donaldson suddenly 
shouts over the radio in Spanish.

Flying 1 1/2 miles behind, the unidentified CIA aircraft commander realizes 
the mistake. He shouts frantically for the interceptor to stop firing. The 
American co-pilot simultaneously shouts in English and Spanish: "No! Don't 
shoot! No mas! No mas!"

It is too late. Smoke pours from the Cessna as it plummets toward the river.

"God," the CIA pilot mutters softly.

The A-37 pilot finally gets the message. "Roger. We're terminating. He's on 
fire," he radios calmly in Spanish. A moment later: "He won't make it; he 
won't make it. I think his wings caught fire."

And then, as the bullet-riddled plane hits the Amazon in a plume of white 
spray, the A-37 pilot adds: "He's already in the water; they're jumping 
out. Their engine is on fire. . . . They're all jumping out."

Then: "The whole plane is on fire. It's sinking."

The video, gripping transcript and a fact-finding report were released by 
the State Department on Thursday as part of a joint U.S.-Peruvian 
investigation into the April 20 accident, which claimed the lives of 
Veronica Bowers of the Assn. of Baptists for World Evangelism and her 
recently adopted 7-month-old daughter, Charity. Donaldson suffered bullet 
wounds; Bowers' husband, James, and 6-year-old son, Cory, were uninjured.

The report assigns no blame but makes clear that both Lima and Washington 
have increasingly ignored parts of a 1994 joint agreement that set strict 
procedures for the airborne anti-narcotics program.

On Thursday, a legal consultant to the Peruvian air force said the two 
Peruvian pilots who shot down the plane will be tried in military court for 
crimes committed while carrying out orders.

Abraham Ramirez said investigators are still trying to determine the 
specific charges. The pilots--a major and a lieutenant--have not been named.

No disciplinary action has been taken against anyone who was in the CIA 
surveillance plane or command-and-control centers taking part from military 
ground stations in Peru and Key West, Fla., officials said.

Similar U.S.-led airborne radar surveillance of drug-trafficking regions 
along the Peru-Colombia border have been suspended pending a National 
Security Council review.

Despite the suspension, "the information we have does not indicate an 
upsurge" of drug flights in the area, said Rand Beers, an assistant 
secretary of State who headed the U.S. side of the investigation.

Beers said drug runners have learned to use ground routes and ships over 
the last five years to avoid the anti-narcotics flights that have downed at 
least 38 suspected drug planes and led to 22 deaths, including those of 
Bowers and her daughter.

The language in the investigative report is diplomatic but damning nonetheless.

It concludes that implementation of the U.S.-Peru operating agreement 
"became less detailed and explicit" as time went on. Joint training of air 
crews similarly "utilized an abbreviated set of procedures" without 

Thus, the Peruvian officer sought and received orders from his superiors to 
shoot down the suspect plane before anyone had checked the plane's 
identifying tail number. "It was not clear who was responsible for 
identifying the tail number or when," Beers said.

And the report cites the "language limitations" of the Peruvian and 
American participants. The Americans are not required to speak Spanish, 
Beers said, and the Peruvian liaison clearly wasn't fluent in English.

As a result, the transcript may be misleading, Beers warned. "Even if you 
hear a 'yes,' it doesn't mean that person understood what was said," he 

Indeed, the sequence would be comical in places if not for the resulting 
tragedy. The Americans joke about where they are, repeatedly curse out 
ground commanders on their intercom and correct one another's pidgin Spanish.

Flying a routine drug surveillance mission, the CIA-run Citation's radar 
first detects the missionary plane at 9:40 a.m., heading from Brazil toward 
Peru. The Peruvian liaison officer on board soon radios his command post at 
Pucallpa to see if the plane had filed a flight plan. None is found.

At 10:04, the Citation pilot asks the Peruvian in apparent surprise if an 
A-37 interceptor has taken off. Moments later, the American pilot expresses 
his first doubt. "We have not declared it suspect," he says. "I'm a little 
nervous about this."

He radios the American ground commander in Pucallpa. But after a brief 
discussion, the pilot decides that he won't fly up to see the plane's 
identifying tail number. "The problem is . . . if he's dirty and he detects 
us, he makes a right turn immediately [across the border] and we can't 
chase him."

"Roger that . . . I would stay covert for the time being and let's see what 
the A-37s do," comes the reply.

Moments later, with the A-37 already aloft, the American pilot warns the 
Peruvian liaison on the intercom: "See, I don't know if this is bandito or 
it's amigo, OK." Maybe the plane will land, the pilot adds. "OK. Before 
brrrr, you know." making the sound of a machine gun.

According to the report, the Peruvian "did not understand this message."

By 10:17, the pilot tells the co-pilot that the Cessna's high altitude and 
steady course don't match the profile of a drug runner. He repeats his 
doubts several times throughout the flight.

"From then on, attempts by both the U.S. crew of the Citation and the 
[Peruvian liaison] to understand what each was trying to say about the 
intercepted aircraft were not understood because of the stressful situation 
and language problems prevailing on board," the report says.

Under a three-phase process, the Peruvian air force is supposed to radio 
the suspect aircraft first. The liaison does so for the first time at 
10:36. He orders the Cessna to head immediately for Pucallpa. "If you do 
not obey, we will go ahead and shoot you down," he warns in Spanish on a 
VHF channel.

But Donaldson, the missionary pilot, is using HF radio, which has a longer 
range, so he can communicate with his wife at the mission center. The 
missionaries hear nothing from the Citation, nor do they hear three radio 
calls from the A-37.

At 10:40, the Peruvians move to Phase 2: the A-37 fires two bursts of 
warning shots, including tracers. But the jet fires from behind at an 
upward angle and the missionaries don't see the shots.

A minute later, the Peruvian officer is informed that the commanding air 
force general in Lima has authorized Phase 3: attack.

At virtually the same time, the Citation pilot again tells the liaison 
officer in English that the Cessna is not trying to escape. "What." comes 
the confused reply.

At 10:45, the liaison authorizes the A-37 gunner to fire. "I think we're 
making a big mistake," the U.S. pilot says softly on the intercom. Three 
minutes later, the Cessna is down.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens