Behind Peru's tragic shootdown of an American missionary plane is an aggressive drug-interdiction program that has earned Peru nothing but praise from the United States - until now.
The Peruvian Air Force's attack Friday on a Cessna aircraft is revealing to Americans the extreme measures foreign governments sometimes take in the US-promoted drug war - measures that in some cases would not be tolerated at home. The shootdown killed an American missionary and her infant daughter.
The new perspective on the drug war comes at a time when US counternarcotics efforts are under unprecedented attack. The salvos echo from Hollywood, which issued a scorching indictment of US drug policy in last year's film "Traffic," to Capitol Hill, where a growing roster of elected US officials are calling for a new anti-narcotics strategy.
The Peruvian attack on the plane - suspect because it was flying in a zone of heavy drug trafficking - is focusing scrutiny on the US's all-out approach to the drug war. While officials try to determine exactly what happened over Peru's Amazon region Friday, the joint anti-drug reconnaissance missions have been suspended. The US Senate Intelligence Committee met with CIA Director George Tenet Tuesday as part of the effort to clear up discrepancies surrounding the incident.
A CIA-manned reconnaissance plane, part of the "airbridge denial program" that has figured in US-Peru anti-drug efforts since 1995, spotted the small Cessna and informed Peruvian Air Force authorities. Peruvian officials say they intercepted the plane and attempted radio contact on several frequencies but got no response.
US officials say they tried to discourage a Peruvian official on the US plane from recommending the Cessna be brought down. Peruvian Air Force officials say that all established procedures for intercepting and firing on suspicious aircraft were followed.
The discrepancies have led the US and Peru to set up a joint investigation in Lima. "We're trying to get to the bottom of this and sort out many sometimes contradictory accounts," says an aide to Sen. Bob Graham, vice-chairman of the Intelligence Committee. The aide says Senator Graham "believes it's premature" to speculate on any impact the shootdown might have on American-sponsored narcotics interdiction programs.
The shootdown took place over an area where Peru, Brazil, and Colombia meet - a hotbed of drug cultivation and trafficking, and a focus of growing international concern as Colombia's drug-financed insurgency threatens to spill over borders into neighboring countries. The US is already spending $1.3 billion on a plan to eradicate coca, the raw material of cocaine, in southern Colombia, and about half that much this year on anti-drug efforts in the Andean region.
But the particular success of Peru's anti-drug program - and the central role played by the air traffic interdiction component of the plan - is going to make any push for changes especially difficult. Since getting tough on the drug trade in the early 1990s Peru - once the world's top coca producer -- has reduced coca cultivation by more than 60 percent.
And the "airbridge denial" plan was particularly successful in disrupting trafficking and pulling the floor from under the price of Peruvian coca, US officials say. "This program historically has been very successful in stemming the flow of drugs out of Peru," says a US official in Lima. "It effectively got the word out to drug traffickers" that using Peruvian skies for drug transport involved heavy risk.
Since signing with the US the 1994 agreement that created the joint air surveillance program, Peru has shot down or strafed more than 30 aircraft and seized another dozen that were forced to land.
The missionary plane is the first involving innocent civilians, officials say.
The success of the aerial interception program is seen in the sharp drop in incidents, Peruvian officials say. Last year only one plane was shot down and another was forced down.
But last year's low tally doesn't mean the drug trade has fallen accordingly, US officials say - only that the traffickers have adapted to circumstances. They have turned to the rivers, prompting the US to help train and finance water patrols - and have learned to make only short flights or cross-border hops that are harder to detect and intercept.
Taking to the water
The shift to river trafficking in Peru is part of a broader shift across Latin America from air to waterways, including the high seas. Mexico, which was home to "the lord of the skies," cocaine trafficker Amado Carrillo Fuentes, in the early 1990s, now says it is working to bust a busy Pacific cocaine transport route that may indicate the existence of a "lord of the seas."
Critics of the Peruvian air interception policy speculate that the incident could prompt Peru to eliminate the shootdown option - especially after a new president takes office at the end of July. Some legal experts in Peru insist the policy violates international law.
In neighboring Colombia, now the world's largest coca producer, official policy is to track suspected aircraft to landing, and then take action. After investigation, some planes with drug cargo have been blown up.
But other observers of the impact of US drug policy in the region are hoping the shootdown will prompt a broader questioning of the drug war.
Luis Astorga, a drug-trade expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University, says US pressure has been key in spreading and accelerating a militarization of Mexico's own drug war - a tendency that goes against the grain of Mexico's democratization, he says.
"From the national security perspective, the US views Mexico in terms of some combination of Russia and Colombia," a new democracy with weak institutions and strong elements of organized crime and corruption, Mr. Astorga says. A "militarization" of the drug war and criminal justice in general in Mexico suggests the Mexican government is "adopting a compatible vision," he adds.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor