The April 20 deaths of Veronica Bowers, 35, and her infant daughter Charity, killed when their plane was downed in the Amazon by the Peruvian air force, were deaths foretold. The air force pilots believed that the single-engine Cessna was carrying drugs. It actually carried four missionaries from the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism.

As early as 1994, a memo from U.S. State Department lawyers warned about the danger of downing civilian planes suspected of carrying narcotics. The lawyers wrote that shooting down civilian aircraft would violate international law. They urged government policymakers not to participate in Peru’s anti-aircraft war. Their warnings went unheeded; U.S. personnel took part in a counternarcotics arrangement with Peru; the true benefits and costs may take years to sort out.

Peru shot down at least 30 planes during the 1990s, a decade that was only a few months longer than the presidency of Alberto Fujimori. The attacks achieved their aim of shutting down an air bridge linking Peruvian coca paste production plants with cocaine finishing operations in Colombia. Peruvian coca cultivation also dropped precipitously during the late 1990s, presumably because the raw coca, once processed, couldn’t easily be transported to market. However, by 2000, new coca plantations were going up in Peru. More important to global anti-eradication efforts, huge new coca plantations were flourishing in Colombia.

The April 20 shootdown occurred after CIA contract employees, flying in a Pentagon-owned Citation 5 jet, provided surveillance data to Peruvian officers, who relayed it to the crew of an A-37 ‘Dragonfly’ fighter plane. The A-37 pilot shot down the missionary plane, apparently despite last-minute warnings from the CIA proxies that the plane might not be that of a drug carrier.

Different policies on cocaine air bridges

Intensive U.S. patrols and surveillance of the skies over Peru and Colombia began in 1994 at a time when Washington counternarcotics officials were despairing of stopping shipments once they got farther up the supply line toward the United States. Across Latin America, no consistent policy for responding to the air bridge has developed—an ambivalence that has been reflected by Washington itself.

Mexican officials were sluggish about responding to reports of drug-carrying planes in their airspace, according to Mexican intelligence sources interviewed by ICIJ. “The traffickers would jettison the drugs on the sea from big airplanes in packages tied with special fluorescent cord that made them visible at night and made them float. Fast boats picked up the packages,” said former Army Capt. Alberto Enriquez, who was based in the Mexican military intelligence office in Chetumal, Quintana Roo, in 1997.

The U.S. Customs Service in 1990 had deployed Citation jets with counternarcotics surveillance equipment in Merida, near the Caribbean coast, and in Hermosillo, on the Pacific, but the information that they and other U.S. sources collected was largely ignored. “It was just routine, paperwork, we didn’t have the means to stop the drugs nor the will of our superiors to do it,” said Enriquez.

There turned out to be a good reason for that. In 1999, Quintana Roo Gov. Mario Villanueva was charged with complicity in drug smuggling cartels. Villanueva was arrested in May 2001 after two years as a fugitive from justice.

Mexico’s lack of effective cooperation in interdiction efforts raised the profile of the anti-aircraft war in the Andes.

Every year, thousands of small planes flying from Colombia and other neighboring states crossed Brazilian air space carrying illegal drugs or precursor chemicals used by traffickers. Although the Brazilian Congress passed a law authorizing the Brazilian air force to shoot down such planes, and President Fernando Henrique Cardoso signed it in March 1998, as of June 2001, Cardoso had not issued regulations required to put the law into effect. The United States, which once encouraged the law, has also backed off.

The Brazilian legislation stipulates that the country’s air force may shoot down unidentified aircraft, but only if specific conditions are first met. The air force must make several attempts to establish radio contact and request to escort the plane to a forced landing on a safe airstrip. Only if the suspect aircraft fails to respond to repeated radio calls may the air force request permission to shoot it down. The order to shoot must come from either the Brazilian president or a personally designated official.

The United States has played an ambiguous role in Brazil’s decision-making process on the shootdown policy. Up to the mid-1990s, U.S. policy makers encouraged the Brazilian military to shoot down suspected drug flights. The U.S. Southern Command, formerly based in Panama and now based in Miami, was to assist with the program by sharing intelligence on suspect aircraft with the Brazilian air force. But in 1992, Peruvian soldiers shot down a U.S. C-130 plane involved in clandestine drug intelligence collection, killing an American serviceman. That occasioned a policy review in Washington. Shortly thereafter, the United States withdrew its support for the Brazilian shootdown law. One explanation was fear of potential liability for accidental shootings of legally flying aircraft, according to Pentagon officials. Another was fear that U.S. aircraft engaged in clandestine operations in the region could also be mistakenly shot down by the Brazilian air force, according to U.S. officials in Brasília, who requested anonymity. The U.S.-Brazilian military relationship was clearly not at a level that would merit U.S. confidence in a Brazilian shootdown policy.

U.S. officials and agencies have been split over the matter, according to Brazilian and U.S. officials interviewed by ICIJ. While the Defense Department and the former White House drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, favored implementation of the law, the State Department under former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright opposed it. During her tenure, the United States threatened to withhold drug-related military intelligence from Brazil if it implemented the shootdown law.

President Cardoso openly addressed the controversy at a summit of North and Latin American military leaders in October 2000. “There are some delicate matters regarding the exchange of information between the countries,” he said. “Some countries do not accept the practice of exchanging information with a country which has a mechanism known as a ‘shootdown law.’ So there are some practical difficulties. We are now weighing the possibilities to define what will be more useful, having all the necessary information or not having it but allowing ourselves the liberty to shoot down planes.” 

“This is something only Brazil can decide for itself,” then-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said at the same conference. A Senate committee Cohen sat on considered the issue in the mid-1980s, he said, and “we concluded that it was not appropriate for us, given the hazards involved and [the possibility of] harming or killing innocent people. But that’s something that only Brazil can decide for itself, and the United States takes no position on that.”

The Brazilian air force command says 6,709 illegal flights were reported within Brazilian air space from January to August 2000. According to Vicente Chelotti, former chief of the Brazilian Federal Police, illegal planes carry around 400 tons of coca base through Brazilian air space every year.

How the country ultimately responds could have similar fatal consequences as in Peru for innocents, like Veronica Bowers and her young child.