- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2001

The Peruvian government, with U.S. surveillance assistance, has shot down or strafed more than 100 airplanes since 1992 as part of a program aimed at reducing the flood of cocaine into the United States, U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.
The air-interdiction program, fiercely advocated by both Peruvian and U.S. officials, is designed to deny drug traffickers the use of the "Andean air bridge" between Peru and Colombia, a corridor linking the two countries through which Peruvian coca paste is transported to Colombia for processing into cocaine.
Peru is one of the worlds major producers of coca leaf, coca paste and cocaine base, much of the crop coming from 30,000 acres under cultivation in the rugged valleys along the Colombian and Ecuadoran borders.
On Friday, the air-surveillance program came under intense scrutiny when a Peruvian air force jet shot at a civilian aircraft, forcing it to land and killing an American missionary and her infant daughter.
A U.S. surveillance plane owned by the Defense Department and operated by the CIA had provided "location data" to the Peruvian jet, meaning it relayed the civilian aircrafts coordinates allowing the jet to intercept it.
The information was sent to the Peruvian jet under strictly defined rules of engagement, the U.S. officials said. The shooting occurred near the town of Iquitos, located in northeast Peru between Colombia and Brazil.
Peruvian government officials said yesterday the civilian aircraft had not filed a flight plan, a claim disputed by the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, which sponsored the flight. CIA-operated aircraft typically provide surveillance information to the Peruvian air force on civilian aircraft that have not filed a flight plan.
The U.S. air-surveillance program has been suspended pending an investigation. Some U.S. sources say Peru acted rashly in firing on the plane, while the Peruvians maintain they followed the programs procedures, which some American sources have denied.
Questions remain on whether U.S. authorities warned the Peruvian jet against the attack because the specific nature of the civilian plane had not been determined.
The Peruvian defense ministry expressed "deep regret" over the incident, saying the pilot had mistaken the civilian aircraft for a planeload of narcotics traffickers. Peruvian officials also said the plane did not respond to attempts to contact it by radio.
The United States began limited air surveillance and interdiction in Peru and other South American countries in 1992 under the Bush administration. It continued and escalated through 1998, when the Clinton administration shut the program down because of "other pressing needs."
The number of U.S. surveillance flights to detect and monitor illicit drug shipments in the Andean nations declined by 68 percent between 1992 and 1998.
The flights resumed again in late 1999 after intense lobbying by government officials in Peru and other South American countries, along with U.S. authorities.
It was the Peruvian government that expressed most of the frustration over the United States decision to halt the air-surveillance program. The withdrawal of Airborne Warning and Control System and other surveillance aircraft, they argued, left air lanes into Colombia virtually open to drug traffickers, hamstringing Perus ability to halt the drug trade.
Gen. Dennis del Castillo, director of Perus national drug police, argued at the time the Peruvian air force had the pilots and planes to do the job of air interdiction, but without U.S. air surveillance and intelligence, "We cant always find the traffickers."
Until mid-1995, larger planes based in Colombia had flown directly to the coca-producing areas of Peru with near impunity, where the pilots delivered bundles of cash in exchange for tons of partially processed cocaine. U.S. officials said traffickers were making 40 flights a month until the air program began to have some effect.
CIA-operated aircraft have been involved in air-surveillance duties in Peru for the past six years, operating under a law passed by Congress in 1994. The law lets U.S. government employees assist foreign nations in the interdiction of aircraft when there is reasonable suspicion it may be carrying drugs or is involved directly in the drug trade.
The law also limits U.S. assistance to those countries with "appropriate procedures … to protect against innocent loss of life" and that "at a minimum include effective means to identify and warn an aircraft" before an attack is started.
The CIA-manned aircraft are used as hunters to spot potential targets, although all final decisions on actual interdictions are made by Peruvian authorities.
The U.S. Customs Service, which began an air-surveillance program in Peru in 1995, resumed air-surveillance operations in that country early last year, hoping to reverse gains cocaine smugglers made in the 17 months the air-surveillance program was shut down.
The Customs Service program accounted for a 56 percent drop in coca production. The tightly coordinated program accounted for 24 planes being shot down and another 12 being grounded.
But those flights were discontinued in December, although other air-surveillance efforts continue, particularly in the Bahamas and Colombia.


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