- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

It has now been more than two months since the tragic April 20 accidental shootdown of an innocent civilian aircraft over the skies of Peru, mistakenly identified as a drug-trafficking flight by the Peruvian air force.
While the U.S.-backed shootdown policy continues to be on hold and the incident under investigation by a State Department-led team, the skies over Peru and Colombia are wide open for drug traffickers moving narcotics in the region, and inevitably, to our nation's streets and communities to destroy our young people.
Concerning our nation's policy on interdiction of drugs with foreign military cooperative efforts, we need to carefully evaluate where we go from here in light of the recent tragic events in Peru. One thing we should not do, regarding the Peruvian aerial shootdown policy on illicit drug trafficking in the skies over the Andes, is throw out the baby with the bath water.
The tragic loss of innocent life that has occurred is regrettable, and our sympathy and that of this nation goes out to the families of those killed and injured in this unfortunate incident. Fortunately, in the many years in which our government has worked side-by-side with the Peruvian authorities to effectively intercept aerial drug trafficking from that drug-producing region, no similar incident has occurred. We must work to ensure that it never happens again.
In both Colombia and Peru, under this effective program there have been nearly 100 shootdowns or forced groundings of illicit drug flights, all without any tragic incident such as the case on April 20 in Peru. Peru is no longer the world's leading coca producer and has seen a 68 percent reduction of its illicit coca crop, mainly because of this air bridge denial program. This has driven the cost of production and trafficking up sufficiently that it exceeds any likely profits, with the result that poor Peruvian farmers are abandoning their illicit fields and turning to other international crops. This is good for our children here at home and all around the globe.
It is incumbent upon our nation and the Peruvian government to fully investigate this tragic occurrence and to develop future safeguards in the program so this never happens again. We need to do all we can to get this program back up and running as soon as possible with these new safeguards, based upon the ongoing interagency review now under way in Peru.
Where appropriate, we must also work to establish accountability for those responsible for this recent tragedy. A suspension of information-sharing in order to conduct this ongoing interagency review should be adequate to learn the facts and to determine reforms to prevent this type of tragedy from recurring. However, this interruption must not provide an advantage to the drug traffickers and cause any more loss of life. We must still confront these merchants of death, who are moving massive amounts of cocaine into our communities and destroying the lives of thousands of our young people.
While not excusing or minimizing this tragedy, we must bear in mind that nearly 16,000 Americans lose their lives each year from the use of and sale of illicit drugs, many of which originate in the Andean Ridge area, including Peru. The tragic loss of innocent life in Peru needs to be viewed in the overall context of the illicit drug problem facing our nation, destroying our young people and communities.
We should not over react by allowing the skies of Latin America to once again be awash with drug-trafficking flights, moving their deadly poison more and more in our direction, taking the lives of many more innocent young people, here and elsewhere around the globe.
With regard to the contention by many that demand here at home is where the emphasis should be in our drug policy, it is important to bear in mind that we are already spending billions to reduce that demand for drugs here in the United States. In turn, an unlimited supply of ever-cheaper, purer, and highly addictive drugs coming in unabated from abroad, impacts and increases demand here at home, as well. Simultaneously, we need to accomplish the reduction in supply and demand together, not one at the expense of the other.
The aerial drug-trafficking shootdown program in the Andean Ridge region, which produces all of the world's cocaine, needs to be restored as part of the supply-reduction effort. One tragedy doesn't justify more death and destruction on our nation's streets and communities.
I am urging the Bush administration to restore this vital air policy as quickly as possible, over the skies of both Colombia and Peru, consistent with recommended changes necessary, which result from the investigation of the tragic April 20 incident.

Benjamin A. Gilman is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York and is chairman emeritus of the House Committee on International Relations and vice chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee On Drug Policy.

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