May 1, 2001
Narco News 2001
Holes in the
Publisher's Note: On February 19, authentic journalist
Peter Gorman, who has spent much of the past 18 years in the
Iquitos region of Peru, near the Colombian border, wrote a story
for The Narco News Bulletin that raised a lot of eyebrows at
the time. Gorman
reported that U.S.-paid mercenaries, from the private sector,
were assembled in the Iquitos region with "shoot-to-kill"
orders as part
of the U.S.-imposed "Plan Colombia" military intervention
Some people found that
story hard to believe - nothing had been reported in the U.S.
media about it until then. But today, now that Veronica and Charity
Bowers, from a dedicated family of Baptist missionaires, lost
their lives last month when U.S. CIA-sponsored private contractors
were involved in the events leading to a shoot-down of their
plan - purportedly for drugs, although there were no drugs -
Gorman's story now makes perfect sense to everyone. In fact,
for the first time, the U.S. media is reporting on the matter
of private-sector mercenaries in the Iquitos region.
This latest report from
Gorman will also be accepted by history as the best and most
knowledgeable analysis of what the United States government is
doing with an atrocity-in-progress called Plan Colombia.
The consequences of this
information reach high - Gorman suggests the missionaries' small
aircraft may have been shot down intentionally to frighten and
remove other potential eyewitnesses from the border region in
preparation for the Plan Colombia atrocities yet to come. But
let the chips fall where they may, and let the heavens fall.
Better the heavens than innocent citizens who fell from Amazon
skies days ago. This is your war. This is your war on drugs.
PERU - On Friday, April 20th at 9:43 AM,
a US Department of Defense radar-aircraft manned by three former
US-military men who were under contract to the CIA and one Peruvian
Air Force officer, notified the US-controlled radar station at
Peru's Morona Cocha military base that it had sighted a plane
that had crossed 3-4 miles into Brazilian territory just off
the Jivari river, the Peruvian border with Brazil.
According to US officials, a second sighting
of the plane occurred 12 minutes later, when the same aircraft
re-entered Peruvian airspace. US officials say the American crew
then asked Peruvian authorities to determine if the craft had
filed a flight plan; when told it hadn't the Peruvian authorities
decided to launch an intercept and attempted to make radio contact;
when they couldn't they began firing, despite the desperate pleas
of the CIA contract pilots to halt the assault. About one hour
and twenty minutes from the time the plane was spotted re-entering
Peruvian airspace, it was shot down. Two passengers, 35-year-old
missionary Veronica Bowers and her seven-month old adopted daughter
Charity, were killed in the Peruvian fighter jet's assault. Three
other passengers, Bowers' husband, Jim, 38, and their son, Cory,
7, were uninjured. The pilot, 42-year-old Kevin Donaldson, was
shot in the legs and is recovering.
On the surface, the story is clean. The
US routinely runs radar checks on planes flying in Peru as part
of a program that has been in place since 1995. When they spot
a suspected drug plane Peruvian authorities are alerted and a
call made on whether to shoot it out of the sky or try to force
it to land. This should be a simple case of mistaken identity
and an unfortunate accident, but it may be more than that. In
1995, the US and Peru came to an agreement on trying to stop
the air transport of basta, coca base, from Peru, to the refining
labs in Colombia. As part of the agreement, the US built a radar
station just outside Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian
of U.S. Troops along the Perú-Colombia Border
Photos by U.S.
Marine Sgt. Chet Decker and Staff Sgt. Chuck Albrecht
base is run by former Special Forces
troops. The US runs the radar and suggests which planes might
be drug-planes; the Peruvian airforce does the dirty work. The
reason for the US running the radar show is to keep temptation
away from Peruvian officials who might be taking bribes. But
according to Peruvian pilots formerly involved in the program-who
for obvious reasons won't give their names-no plane is intercepted
or shot down unless the US gives the go-ahead. And this is where
the story of the shootdown as reported in Reuters and the AP
Publisher's note: See also the comments of former U.S. DEA agent in Peru,
in this issue of Narco News, who confirms that "Nobody shoots
down anything unless the CIA says so."
By Sunday morning the US was changing
it's official story to accept that it had notified Peruvian authorities
of the sighting but was officially claiming that it had tried
to prevent the shoot-down. "The US crew repeatedly expressed
their concern that the nature of the aircraft had not been determined,"
a US official in Washington told Reuters. "Despite serious
concerns raised by the US crew, the shoot-down was authorized
by Peruvian authorities." One report had the Peruvian pilots
as cowboys who shot the Bowers' plane against US wishes. While
that is not an impossibility, that's not the way it's generally
done in Peru. The US calls the shots, period, and since only
roughly 40% of the planes they recommend for downing can be connected
with the drug trade-again, according to pilots who have been
part of the program-Peru takes the public heat for downing innocent
planes, but explains that it only does what the US asks and thus
keeps its hands clean.
The US makes the calls but doesn't do
any shooting, thus it too keeps its hands clean. The reason so
many planes have been downed wrongly is simply the reality of
small plane traffic in the Amazon region of Peru: They're generally
old puddle-jumping Cessnas and very few have any instrumentation
left, including radios, and fewer still file flight plans. They're
generally piloted by bush pilots who fly by sight at low altitudes,
basically running errands for people who live our work out on
the rivers in the dense jungle.
This case was different. The Cessna 185
had full instrumentation. Moreover, while the US insists the
CIA-contract plane contacted the Peruvian air tower in Iquitos
to inquire about the Cessna's flight plan and were told it had
none, it is now possible to download copies of that flight plan
from CNN or from the American Baptists for World Evangelism's
The Peruvian air tower initially agreed
there had been a flight plan filed-showing the plane leaving
Iquitos for Islandia the day before the shootdown, a tiny Peruvian
city on the river border between Peru and Brazil and returning
the following day. The Peruvian air controllers later amended
their statement to say the plan was filed while the plane was
in flight back to Iquitos from Islandia. Two of those accounts
have to be inaccurate.
Moreover, the Bowers' plane was in regular
radio contact with Iquitos throughout its flight, including the
moment when it was shot down just outside of the river city of
Pevas, about 100 air miles outside of Iquitos. The US version
of the story to date is this: the US plane, operated by CIA contract
agents spotted a suspicious plane and alerted the Peruvian authorities
to the possibility that it was a drug plane. The Peruvian air
tower in Iquitos mistakenly told the US crew that the Bowers'
plane had not filed a flight plan, compounding the suspicions
that it was a drug plane. The interceptor jet then tried to reach
the Bowers' plane on the radio but only tried military frequencies,
which the Bowers' were not on. The Peruvians then seriously breached
military protocol by shooting down the plane while the US plane
heroically and frantically tried to call them off. In sum: the
deaths are tragic; the fault lies with the Peruvians who made
multiple errors and seriously breached standard protocol for
the situation. That story does not hold up to scrutiny and only
raises several questions.
The shooting occurred more than 160 miles from the original sighting. The Bowers' Cessna 185 has a top speed of 130
MPH. In this case it was probably slower as it was near full-load
with five passengers. Which means it took 80-90 minutes to reach
the intercept point. The Peruvian fighter jet was a Cessna A37B,
which has a flight speed of 507 MPH. Taking off from the military
airport in Iquitos then it could have made the flight to the
intercept point at Pevas in about 15 minutes. So the first question
is why did the intercept take place where it did and not closer
to the Brazilian/Peruvian border? To occur near Pevas meant the
Peruvian jet either took more than an hour to take off, or the
shoot down was purposely timed to occur at Pevas.
That it took the Peruvian jet more than
an hour to take off seems unreasonable given that the crew is
on 24-hour alert for exactly the purpose of intercepting drug-smuggling
planes. That the intercept was timed to occur at Pevas would
imply that it was intended that there be witnesses to the shootdown-Pevas
is the largest city on the Amazon between Iquitos and the Brazilian
border, with a population of about 4,000. It also has a Peruvian
military base, the closest base along the Peruvian Amazon to
the Putumayo river, which is the Peruvian border with Colombia
and territory under the control of Colombia's FARC rebels. The
region is currently being militarily bolstered on the Peruvian
side (See FTW March, 01) in anticipation of the-presumably-imminent
start of Plan Colombia bloodshed which is anticipated to drive
FARC rebels across the Putumayo onto Peruvian soil. Who stood
to gain in this scenario?
second question involves the alleged
attempts of the Peruvian fighter jet to reach the Bowers' plane
on the radio. That the Bowers' radio was on and working has been
confirmed by the air traffic controllers in Iquitos. The Peruvian
government claims its pilots tried and to communicate by radio
with the Bowers' on three separate frequencies during that time.
But the Peruvian's allegedly only tried to communicate on military
frequencies. Why didn't they try the standard commercial frequencies
even once during the entire 80-90 minutes it took from the time
they were alerted to the Bowers' plane's existence until they
shot it down. Was it simply a human error on their part? Or were
they under orders or military protocol not to communicate with
Human error-simply forgetting to change
frequencies-seems unlikely since these are professional military
officers well trained in just this sort of activity. But if they
were either under orders not to communicate with their target
whose orders were they?
third question relates to what occurred
after the Bowers' plane had made its emergency landing in the
Amazon. One wing was already on fire, according to both Jim Bowers
and Kevin Donaldson. Yet both Bowers and Donaldson have said
the Peruvians continued to strafe them after they landed. Why?
It is certainly not normal military protocol in dealing with
unarmed planes. There are no roads out, so why fire on them while
they languished in the river? Who ordered that? Were the Peruvians
simply blood thirsty? Or is it possible they realized a terrible
mistake had been made and were trying to ignite the Bowers' fuel
to eliminate the evidence of the error?
question relates to the initial CIA contract team's identification of the Bowers' plane as a possible drug-smuggling
plane. US procedures demand that US planes attempt to identify
planes by their tail numbers. The Bowers' plane's number was
clearly marked and the US initially did not answer the press'
questions regarding the issue.
On Tuesday, April 24, several days after
the shootdown, The Washington Post reported that US officials
had explained that the CIA contract crew had breached its own
identification procedures because they were afraid that the suspected
drug plane-the Bowers' plane- would flee the country if they
got close enough to read the tail numbers. The Post further reported
that the US claims the CIA contract crew gave the tail number-identification
task to the Peruvians, and that they failed to follow through.
The Peruvians do not agree with the US story.
Peruvian Prime Minister Javier Perez de
Cuellar, the former U.N. secretary-general, has defended the
Peruvian military in the shootdown. On Tuesday, April 24, in
his government's first official response to the US allegations
that the shootdown was Peru's fault, he said "For the time
being, it would be hasty to say that the Peruvian air force is
responsible, or that the pilot of the [missionary] airplane was
responsible." If the events unfolded the way the US claims
there are too many unanswered questions. The Bower's plane was
well known around Iquitos: the Bowers' had been there a long
time and made regular flights from-and-to the city. Could the
Peruvians really have simply shot it on their own? Would the
pilots risk their position, and very likely jail time, to shoot
down the Bowers' plane on their own? And even if they were authorized
to shoot it down by someone, why would they risk their posts
and jail time by continuing to strafe it once it was in flames
on the Amazon? And again, why in front of Pevas, a reasonably
good sized river town with a military base.
There were hundreds of witnesses to the
entire affair. If there were some reason to want the Bowers'
dead, why do it at Pevas? Between Pevas and the next town toward
the Brazilian border there is a stretch of nearly 100 miles of
almost nothing but tiny villages and a leper colony. The Peruvian
craft certainly had the speed to intercept at any point along
that stretch. Was there a purpose in making the intercept near
the closest large town to the Colombian border and FARC territory?
Was someone trying to make it look as though the plane was coming
out of Colombia? In truth, Peruvians don't shoot down planes
without the authorization of the US.
And of all the planes shot down during
the several years of the joint US/Peruvian interdiction program-25
are admitted to, though local figures put it several times higher
than that-none has been shot down entering Peruvian airspace.
Planes are shot down leaving, because
when they leave they are carrying coca paste to Colombia for
But planes entering Peruvian airspace,
particularly drug-running planes, are entering with cash. Nobody
shoots down planes loaded with cash. They are simply forced down
so their cash can be confiscated. So very little of the official
US story makes sense the way it was told, unless the Peruvians
were completely at fault, either through utter incompetence or
malicious intent. What might the real story be?
One important background event must be
put into the equation at this point: On the day the Bowers' plane
was shot down the Third Summit of the Americas was opening in
Quebec. With the exception of Fidel Castro the head of every
country in the Americas was present, including George Bush. He
was pushing the ratification of the Free Trade of the Americas
Agreement. In recent weeks he has also changed the name of Clinton's
Plan Colombia to The Andean Initiative and has been working hard
to give it his own stamp.
But just weeks before the summit, Uruguay's President Jorge Batlle Ibanez
proposed the worldwide legalization of drugs when he told
The Washington Post, "Imagine the money you spend to impede
drug traffic and imagine that huge amount of resources on education
for the people who really need help." Moreover, he had promised
to lobby for drug legalization in a speech in front of all 34
heads of state at the Quebec Summit. Given that as a background,
could it be that the downing of the Bowers' plane was a high-profile
publicity stunt that went bad? Would it be a leap to imagine
the CIA contract crew was told it would be just terrific if they
managed to intercept a drug smuggling plane during the summit?
Better yet, if a drug plane were thought to be carrying drugs
from the FARC rebels, the primary targets of Plan Colombia/the
Andean Initiative. That publicity would completely defuse Uruguay's
drug legalization message by tying drugs to revolutionary movements
in bright, bold letters.
Now if that suggestion was made to the
US CIA contract crew and they thought they had a drug smuggling
plane when they caught radar-sight of the Bowers' Cessna, all
of the rest of the questions would be answered: The call was
given to the Peruvian authorities to intercept and take down
the craft. The location would place the shootdown in front of
Pevas, ensuring witnesses and, because of Pevas being less than
60 mile proximity to Colombian FARC held territory, the suggestion
could be made that it was a FARC drug-smuggling plane. No radio
contact was made because the order to kill was given in code
by the US. When it was later determined that the Bowers' plane
was not a drug-smuggling plane the US desperately tried to call
off the kill. But the order, once given, could not be rescinded.
Which would explain why the Bowers' were strafed even after their
emergency landing and while their plane was on fire. At that
point it would be better to simply explode the plane to eliminate
the evidence and give both the US and Peru more time to come
up with credible and matching stories about the shootdown.
That scenario would also explain why the
US story has changed daily since the shootdown. It would also
explain why Peru says it is not at fault in the incident.
Peter Gorman is a Senior
Editor for High Times Magazine and a veteran journalist who has
spent many years living in Peru. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is Your War.
This is Your War on Drugs.