- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2001

The mistaken shoot-down by Peru of a light plane carrying American missionaries adds two more lives to the vast ocean of lives taken by Colombian drug traffickers. If this tragic mistake is a watershed event, it is not because the shoot-down policy failed or derogates international law. In fact, it reduced drug trafficking between Peru and Colombia dramatically in its first two years, encouraged Peruvian coca growers to switch to legitimate crops, and cut coca production in Peru by an incontrovertible 47 percent. The watershed is somewhat different. This tragedy points up the ever-widening circles of innocent life lost while Colombian drug traffickers remain at large.
Great sadness attends tragic mistakes that result in loss of innocent life but that is precisely what Colombian drug traffickers do every day. They steal away innocent lives. They rob from innocents across this hemisphere, especially the United States, the very promise of life. Last year, more than 15,000 young Americans died at the hands of drug overdoses, many involving Colombian heroin and cocaine. The coca base for this cocaine is often produced in Peru.
Make no mistake: Ultimate responsibility for this friendly fire accident lies with the unrepentant drug lords who are the unambiguous first cause of the Peruvian shoot-down policy. If they did not traffic coca base in great quantities over the exact flight path of this light plane in nearly identical airframes, consumed by trafficking wealth and utterly indifferent to the countless young lives they steal, this event would never have happened.
Note, too, that the U.S. Customs Service is a saving grace for nations seeking to preserve civil society against the onslaught of powerful drug traffickers. Under a time-tested process of intelligence sharing by U.S. Customs, we provided timely and accurate data on a suspected trafficking planes profile. The Peruvians summoned two antiquated airframes to track the profile of a drug trafficking plane on a typical trafficking flight path. If they followed international legal protocol, which they claim to have done, they were within their rights to force this plane down.
Three specific points need making in the dumbest silence that follows this mistake. First, caution and the law are always first priority. There are rules for engaging a foreign plane and even for engaging a drug traffickers plane in Peruvian airspace. The investigation that is under way should zero in on whether these rules were, in fact, followed by the Peruvian pilots.
Assuming they were, the need for greater cooperation within this hemisphere to reverse recent drug trends, shut down Colombia traffickers, bring Mexican cartels to justice, and seriously review U.S. commitments to those who need our assistance should be front and center. This event reminds us that our neighbors are at war, and that we have a real responsibility to help.
Second, with this jarring event should come a flash-back to the value of teaching our own culture that drugs and flirtation with such concepts as legalization are dangerous. We do not have the luxury of treating a generation or two as expendable, or treating federally supported drug prevention as merely optional. These choices are upon us, no less than the Peruvian choice to save their nation by shoot-down. We should fully fund efforts like the Office of National Drug Controls hard-hitting Media Campaign (which leverages private support for effective media advertising through the non-profit Partnership for a Drug-Free America), widely heralded National Guard drug prevention programs, D.A. America, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Safe and Drug Free Schools and the Drug-Free Communities Act, as well as non-profit leaders like the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws. These programs and prevention more generally work, if they are properly and consistent supported.
We can no longer avert our gaze from the hard task of educating our young about the damage done to body, mind and soul by drugs, and as in this instance knowledge about how they get here, and how intense the struggle is in places like Peru to stop them. If American teens did not use the cocaine that fuels the coca paste flights, there would be no Peruvian shoot-down policy, and no tragedies of this kind.
Third, this is just the first verse of the first chapter of the first volume of a stark reality that will increasingly confront this White House. President Bush can not escape the dark shadow cast across competing domestic and international priorities by the thousand-pound guerrilla of drug policy. It is a challenge that will play into the rest of the Bush policy agenda as it did in the midst of the Americas Summit just as surely as Platos cave wall caught shadows of a larger reality. In education, health care, domestic violence, personal and property crime, labor productivity, national security, terrorism, and even economic growth, the ugly drug war shadow appears. That realization, made vivid by this tragic episode, may perhaps reinforce the urgency of a strong, vocal and proactive role on U.S. drug policy by the White House.
No president has been better prepared to tackle this issue. On the other hand, the massive task ahead of this president is daunting. For no past president has the confluence of possible drug war surprises international, border-related, law enforcement-driven, prevention- and family-focused and treatment-tied been more likely to play a major role in the success or failure of his agenda.
In the end, what the incident in Peru teaches us is that this hemisphere, and our society particularly, cannot afford to look away. We must recommit ourselves to stopping the loss of life that stems whether by teen-age overdose or friendly fire shoot-down from an absence of community and national leadership on an issue dear to every parent and most Americans.

Robert Charles was chief counsel to the National Security Subcommittee (1995-1999), chief staffer to the Speakers Task Force on Drugs (1997-1999), and conducted repeated oversight trips to Peru and Colombia examining U.S. and host country drug war operations. He currently teaches law and government at Harvard University Extension School.

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