Pubdate: Wed, 25 Apr 2001
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2001, The Tribune Co.
Section: Nation/World, page 1
Author:  Sebastian Rotella of the Los Angeles Times


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Even Though A Missionary And Her Baby Died, The 
Drug-War Policy Apparently Is Too Effective To Give Up

Antidrug warriors involved in a U.S.- Peruvian airborne interdiction effort 
that has slashed the South American nation's cocaine production had a 
warning for smugglers: "You fly, you die."

That warlike motto governed the zone of low-intensity conflict into which a 
Cessna seaplane carrying American Baptist missionaries flew last week with 
disastrous results: A Peruvian air force jet assisted by a CIA surveillance 
plane shot down the Cessna, killing a mother and her infant daughter.

In the aftermath, the shoot-down policy will be scrutinized by a team of 
investigators involving the CIA, National Transportation Safety Board, Drug 
Enforcement Administration and other U.S. agencies expected in the coming 
days in Lima, Peru's capital. The United States has suspended its aerial 
interdiction operations in Peru.

"Smuggling flights are going to get through now, but that's the price you 
pay," said a former official with the U.S. Embassy in Lima. "It's critical 
they get the answer to why this happened and make sure it's never repeated. 
But I don't think they'll kill the shoot-down policy: It's a 
national-security question."

Friday's shoot-down was the first time innocent victims were harmed in the 
8-year-old program, according to U.S. officials. And former Embassy 
officials say the safeguards they built in contributed to a success story 
in the war on drugs in the Andes region.

The numbers are impressive. Peru has reduced cultivation of the coca plant 
by about 70 percent since 1996. The drop resulted from eradication efforts 
on the ground combined with the aerial offensive- against smugglers who fly 
coca paste into Colombia, where it is refined into cocaine and smuggled to 
the United States.

The joint effort'm Peru disrupted coca production, drove up coca prices and 
served as a general deterrent as exemplified by this underworld market 
indicator: In the early 1990s, smuggling pilots charged $30,000 per flight 
into the nation. After the air force interceptions began, the pilots' fee 
jumped to $180,000 - in advance.

Success had its costs in Peru. President Alberto Fujimori drifted into 
authoritarianism in the 1990s, he retained U.S. support largely because of 
his antidrug performance.

That weakened Peruvian institutions, leading inevitably to the crisis that 
toppled him, critics say. And the priorities of the drug war turned the 
U.S. national-security apparatus into a shadow that hovers over most 
important events in Peru, including Friday's shoot-down.

The CIA has made a strong, specific case that its contract employees aboard 
the surveillance plane urge Peruvian officers to refrain from firing on the 
missionaries' plane, which U.S. radar operators had detected and identified 
as a suspicious aircraft.

Still, the CIA's role reminds Peruvians of the agency's longtime influence 
here, according to critics.

"A great deal of what happened in Peru in these years was resolved in 
negotiations with the U.S. Embassy and especially with the CIA" said Carlos 
Tapia, a Peruvian political analyst.

The drug-interdiction proposal during the Fujimori administration, similar 
to a program adopted in Colombia, called for the United States to use its 
intelligence-gathering might, including aerial tracking radar and radio and 
telephone interception technology, to help Peru shoot down airborne 
smugglers. The take-no-prisoners approach appealed to Fujimori.

The idea provoked internal debate in the U.S. government, however. Lawyers 
for the State and justice departments warned that "mistakes are likely to 
occur under any policy that contemplates the use of weapons against civil 
aircraft in flight," and "a shoot-down leading to the death of innocent 
persons would likely be a serious diplomatic embarrassment," according to 
declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive, a private 
group in Washington.

In total, Peru's air force has shot down, forced down or strafed more than 
30 suspected smuggling planes and seized more than a dozen aircraft on the 
ground, according to U.S. Embassy officials.

It is hard to confirm the assertion that all of those who died were 
involved in drug smuggling. Former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett and two 
other former U.S. Embassy officials interviewed by the Los Angeles Times 
said they did not know of any mistaken shoot-downs. In all the incidents of 
which one former embassy official was aware, authorities found evidence of 
trafficking - such as residue of coca paste or cash - in the wreckage.

Meanwhile, skeptics question whether the interdiction program has been an 
unqualified success.

Tapia said the failure to provide alternative sources of income has 
worsened the hardships of about 200,000 families who had depended on coca.

"This policy will continue because the importance of the drug war for the 
United States is too powerful," he said. "But this has not brought 
well-being to the Peruvian people."
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