- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2001

The shooting down of a U.S. missionary plane by a Peruvian air force pilot in April could hardly have carried more emotional resonance, especially considering the involvement of U.S. officials in the tragedy. The consequent deaths of Veronica Bowers, a U.S. citizen, and her adorable child, named (of all things) Charity, and the fact that the victims attacked were missionaries dedicated to grass-roots charitable work make the tragedy difficult to dismiss.
A recently released report demonstrates just how glaring the mistakes were that led up to the horrific shooting. Just after Jim Bowers lost his wife, Veronica, and his daughter, Charity, he said he believed that God had intended for the shooting to occur so that important lessons could be learned regarding the manner in which the international war on drugs was being conducted. Clearly, the Bowers' grief exposes troubling shortfalls in the way fatal force was being used in Peru to bring down suspected drug-running flights.
The report on the investigation into the tragedy, which was headed by Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, reveals an alarming lack of professionalism on the part of the CIA trackers, who communicated to the Peruvians that they had identified the missionary plane as a presumed drug flight. But as can be expected of any investigation headed by Mr. Beers, the report whitewashes the culpability of the U.S. officials who participate in these missions. Furthermore, the report fails to assign any blame for the incident. Also disconcerting is how long it took for the report to be made public.
According to Mr. Beers, the original procedures in how to respond to a suspected drug flight had become "abbreviated." Mr. Beers said that careful guidelines were established when the program began under the Clinton administration in 1994. But over the years, those procedures "became less detailed and explicit," the report said, without specifically identifying how this gross deterioration in the rules of engagement could have occurred and who on the U.S. side was responsible for overseeing that the original procedures were adhered to. According to the report, in the Bowers case, what should have been a methodical, four-step process to identify and warn an aircraft before opening fire became three rapid phases: "Radio. Warning. Use of deadly force."
And the warning shots that the jet fighter fired were aimed into the sky, rather than straight ahead, so they weren't even seen by the missionary plane. Furthermore, Peruvian ground controllers failed to check on the tail number that was clearly marked on the missionary plane.
But the most appalling finding of the report was that one of the main factors contributing to the mistaken identity of the missionary plane was a lack of communication between U.S. and Peruvian officials. "The language limitations of Peruvian and American participants particularly under stress played a role in reducing the timely flow of information and comprehension of decisive messages related to the April 20 interception," the report said.
While the U.S. trackers had initially alerted the Peruvians of their suspicion the Bowers plane was a drug flight, they later detected indications that the flight was not drug-related. But they were unable to communicate any of those reservations in Spanish, and the ground controllers didn't appear to understand English. Suddenly, the U.S. trackers heard the panicked pleas of the Bowers as the Peruvians opened fire "They're killing us!"
The shooting of the Bowers' plane is unmistakable evidence that the United States must be radically more vigilant of the rules of engagement involving counternarcotics initiatives. U.S. credibility is at stake. Proper communication between U.S. and Peruvian officials during a potentially lethal reconnaissance flight is absolutely critical and quite easily arranged.
This tragedy must prompt U.S. officials to carefully look into and reform counternarcotics initiatives involving Latin America, as Mr. Bowers hoped, as well as the U.S. officials who oversee them. If not, Veronica and Charity died in vain.

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