In 2001, the Peruvian Air Force shot down a plane flying over the Amazon after receiving information from the CIA that the plane was trafficking in narcotics. It wasn’t. It was filled with Christian missionaries. The attack resulted in the death of 35-year-old Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter Charity. The CIA was working with the government of Peru as part of a program to intercept drug planes en route—another part of our disastrous drug interdiction efforts in Latin America.
Seven years later, CIA Inspector General John Helgerson has issued a blistering report finding that the CIA repeatedly lied and covered up details about the intercept program, about the downing of Bowers’ plane, and about other incidents that never made the news.
Unfortunately much of Helgerson’s report is classified, so the conclusions, while damning, are frustratingly lacking in detail. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), whose district Bowers was from, is trying to get the entire report declassified. Here are a few excerpts from what’s been released to the public [pdf]:
The plane, following the Amazon River in its westward journey in daylight, was tracked by a CIA aircraft as a suspected narcotrafficker and was fired on by the Peruvian Air Force. The mother and infant were killed; the American pilot was seriously wounded. Within hours, CIA officers began to characterize the shootdown as a one-time mistake in an otherwise well-run program. In fact, this was not the case.
The routine disregard of the required intercept procedures in the ABDP led to the rapid shooting down of target aircraft without adequate safeguards to protect against the loss of innocent life. Key Peruvian and American participants in the program told OIG that, in many cases, performing the required procedures would have taken time and might have resulted in the escape of the target aircraft. In addition, because the required procedures to establish contact with a target aircraft were difficult to conduct, it was easier to shoot the aircraft down than to force it down. The result was that, in many cases, suspect aircraft were shot down within two to three minutes of being sighted by the Peruvian fighter – without being properly identified, without being given the required warnings to land, and without being given time to respond to such warnings as were given to land.
[Emphasis in original.]
In other words, the risk of the loss of innocent life was acceptable if it meant more efficient ways of inhibiting the delivery of narcotics. Lying to Congress and the exeuctive? All worth it. Because it’s all about stopping people from getting high.
Collateral damage—and let’s face it, that’s how the CIA and federal drug warriors view Veronica and Charity Bowers—has always been an accepted part of drug prohibition, but this callous disregard for the loss of life and human rights seems particularly egregious in our foreign interdiction efforts. See the House of Death case, where federal agents looked the other way while one of their Mexican informants participated in a series of brutal and entirely preventable murders. See our pre-September 11 anti-narcotics alliance with the Taliban, or our continued drug interdiction aid to Thailand after the government mass executed thousands of suspected drug offenders, sans trial.
My favorite most recent example is an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star by a former DHS counter-narcotics official insisting that the increasingly bloody and brutal drug-related killing in Mexico is a sign that the U.S. and Mexico are "winning" the drug war. Because what’s a few thousand dead Mexicans if we can point to a 19 percent drop in the use of cocaine here in the U.S.?