Innocent civilians caught in drug war's line of fire
May 2, 2001
The recent deaths of American missionary Veronica Bowers and her daughter Charity brought to light a little-known part of the drug war. Many were surprised to hear that a CIA-contracted crew aboard a U.S. surveillance plane had tipped off the Peruvian air force, which downed the missionaries' plane. But such personnel have for more than a decade been playing an important role in the drug war.
In 1988, when I first visited Tingo Maria, the main town in Peru's Huallaga Valley, most of the other guests at the town's best hotel were U.S. pilots and mechanics, civilian employees of a company widely rumored to have ties to the CIA.
The U.S. embassy had contracted these men to fly and maintain U.S.-owned helicopters used in the coca-eradication program. The Huallaga was then partly under the control of leftist guerrillas, and was also the world's largest grower of coca, which is used to make coca paste, a raw form of cocaine.
Many local residents considered the U.S. crews to be part of an invasion, an impression reinforced when Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials accompanied Peruvian troops on full-scale occupations of valley towns.
During these operations, hundreds of residents were indiscriminately arrested, all in the name of drug control.
Joint U.S.-Peruvian surveillance flights began in 1994, in an attempt to shut down the so-called air bridge -- the flight path drug traffickers use to ferry coca paste from the Huallaga Valley to cocaine-processing sites in Colombia.
By 1999, U.S. officials were proclaiming that the air-interdiction program, combined with aggressive coca eradication, had virtually shut down coca and paste production in the Huallaga. But Colombian cocaine makers merely turned to domestic producers for their raw materials.
Traffickers have also dispersed production and distribution networks into ever-more remote regions of the Amazon. This makes interdiction more difficult, no matter how sophisticated the surveillance aircraft.
Despite U.S. claims that its presence has contributed to significant victories, the main result has been damaging: War has spread throughout the region. While the cocaine trade has brought violence and disruption to many remote locales like the one where the Bowers died, U.S.-funded drug-control efforts have perpetuated the conflict, often harming people who live there. Thousands of people have been injured, dispossessed or even killed as the result of the drug war.
It is only when the victims are U.S. citizens that it makes the news here.
It is not enough for the United States to stop cooperating with Latin American governments in a reckless policy of downing aircraft. It should call a halt to a fruitless and destructive war on drugs.
JoAnn Kawell is an expert with the "Foreign Policy In Focus" project (www.foreignpolicyinfocus.org). She has reported on the Andean drug war for National Public Radio, The Progressive and others. She can be reached at email@example.com.