A Just War?

The shooting war against drugs-the part that shoots down airplanes-is a war about which most Americans know nothing. Well, now we know. On April 20, Veronica Bowers, a Baptist missionary, and her seven-month-old daughter were killed when their plane was shot down over the jungles of eastern Peru. This tragedy gives us a brief window of opportunity to examine the human costs of how the United States conducts its war on drugs.

The Peruvian Air Force pilot who did the shooting was guided to the unarmed Cessna by an American surveillance plane flown by CIA contract employees who work for a U.S.-funded system intended to interdict drugs in the Andes, especially Peru and Colombia. The killings appear to be a terrible accident brought on by carelessness, the failure to observe proper identification and verification procedures, and the inability of the American pilots to speak Spanish. But why are we shooting down unarmed civilian planes at all? More is at stake than proper procedures. Since 1992, a joint U.S.-Peruvian operation has shot down some thirty planes, and forced still others to land and be searched. Presumably no Americans have been on board-or, at least, no obviously innocent ones.

This time five innocent Americans were shot down: mother and child were killed, the pilot was seriously injured, and Bowers’s husband and son watched her and the baby die. Isn’t it time to do more than conduct an accident investigation? Isn’t it time to take another look at the U.S. war on drugs? What the United States encourages in Peru is illegal in this country and most others. In fact, shooting down planes would never be tolerated as part of the domestic fight against drugs. But Peru-or Peru under the now-disgraced President Alberto Fujimori and his intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos (a CIA operative)-did sign on. Is this a policy that the new government of Peru should continue?

Emerging details of the American operation raise questions not only about the obvious effects of our drug war, but the hidden ones as well. First of all, the drug-war policy continues a long, sometimes secret, and often ugly history of Pentagon and CIA involvement with Latin American militaries. These militaries remain powerful, often unchecked, forces under democratic rule as they were under dictatorial rule. In part because of that history and congressional reluctance to insert the U.S. military into low-intensity guerrilla wars, the drug war in Peru and Colombia is being run through private companies that hire contract workers for various tasks, including surveillance. In Colombia, they fumigate drug crops and fly soldiers to combat zones.

The surveillance plane in Peru that spotted the Bowerses’ plane was flown by workers employed by a company called Aviation Development, which in turn has a contract with the CIA. Aviation Development, though a "civilian" company, flies from Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Coincidentally-or not-Alabama is the home of Republican Senator Richard Shelby, chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, the man who oversees classified work of the CIA and other intelligence agencies (New York Times, April 18, 2001).

Thus, we have private companies carrying out U.S. foreign and military policy overseas. These companies hire civilian workers who have the power to call for the Peruvian Air Force to shoot down a plane, while being subject to none of the strictures placed on the U.S. military by Congress or the Code of Military Justice.

Last year, we spent $1 billion on the drug war in Latin America, a continent whose chronic underdevelopment practically requires the growing of the one cash crop U.S. buyers most want. Peasants living under the double sway of rural poverty and the power of local drug manufacturers and dealers cultivate this crop.

This isn’t the first time the United States has conducted a war on drugs. Like Prohibition in the 1920s, the current war on drugs doesn’t (or hasn’t) stopped drug trafficking. Now as then, prohibition fosters networks of corruption, undermines law enforcement, and builds up enormous accumulations of unregulated money, often put to other criminal uses, including money laundering by banks. (The head of the Peruvian Air Force, General Nicolas Hermoza, is under investigation for taking nearly $15 million in drug money and sending it abroad.)

Ultimately the United States decided that Prohibition didn’t work: alcohol would have to be controlled through regulation. Today alcohol is legal; its production is regulated, controlled, and taxed by both the states and the federal government. At least some drugs are no better or worse than alcohol. Experience, education, social mores have taught many Americans about the consequences of alcohol abuse, and, for that matter, the deadly effects of cigarette smoking. Despite their dangers and their costs to society, both substances remain legal; most who use them do so in moderation. Could a system of education, treatment, and gradual decriminalization, beginning with marijuana, bring about similar results? Admittedly, the "moderate" use of hard drugs may be an oxymoron. But so is the idea that the American appetite for drugs can be curbed by waging an essentially clandestine war a thousand miles from our borders.

Veronica Bowers and her daughter died in Peru, victims of the drug war. It may seem a leap from that tragedy to questions about the decriminalization of drugs. Nonetheless, those deaths, together with the destruction we are raining down on Colombia today (and perhaps Ecuador tomorrow), plus America’s own draconian drug sentences that keep unprecedented numbers of young black and Hispanic males in jail, as well as the corruption that inevitably follows the drug trade-all of these raise the question of whether this is a war that can be won. Can it be won without forms of corruption as bad or worse than those created by the drugs themselves and the culture and trade they encourage? Finally, is it a war that should be conducted on other people’s territory rather than our own?

Published in the 2001-05-18 issue: 

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