Innocent lives too high a price for interdiction

Downed plane: Killing of two Americans in Peru shows an effective drug program run amok.

April 25, 2001

THE CALLOUS destruction of a small Cessna plane by a Peruvian air force pilot, killing an American missionary and her baby, puts the program of drug interdiction in the Andes in jeopardy.

A suspension of CIA surveillance flights in Peru was properly ordered. Congressional support for the aid package Plan Colombia is likely to plummet.

This attack was on a flight by an experienced missionary pilot doing what he has done many times. U.S. sources were slow to admit CIA involvement, and then said its agents argued against the attack until further identification could be made.

Various reports suggest the civilian pilot and Peruvian fighter pilot were calling each other on different wavelengths. U.S. spokesmen said the attack did not follow rules of engagement that the Clinton administration promised to Congress, while Peruvian spokesmen said it went by the book.

The program began in 1994, and was suspended for six months while supposed safeguards were put in place. But export of cocaine is way down, in part, because some two dozen drug smugglers' planes have been identified and downed.

The killing of Veronica "Roni" Bowers and her daughter, Charity, occurred Friday in the Peruvian Amazon. The next day in neighboring Colombia, the Colombian air force forced down another Cessna.

Troops hunting its passengers captured the notorious Brazilian cocaine lord Luiz Fernando da Costa. It was a triumph of drug interdiction.

That capture casts doubt on Colombian President Andres Pastrana's policy of peacemaking with the insurgent group FARC, which is contingent on FARC's noninvolvement in drug trafficking. The Colombian army found evidence that Mr. da Costa has been trading guns to FARC for cocaine.

The American Baptist ministry to indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin will go on. But the killing of Roni and Charity Bowers, close call to husband Jim and son Cory Bowers and the wounding of pilot Kevin Donaldson are a price too high for drug interdiction.

Removing the CIA from the program would invite narco-terrorists to resume their trade in madness and death. But the CIA and U.S. military should suspend operations until assured that such an atrocity cannot recur. The need to stop drug traffic is no excuse for target practice on people who are not drug smugglers. But that's what happened.

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