Peru’s Insane Drug Warriors Bring Back “Death Penalty from the Sky”

EspañolOn April 20, 2001, Veronica and Jim Bowers, together with their kids, took to the skies of the Peruvian Amazon on board a private jet. The family were headed to the northeastern city of Iquitos, where they lived.

Suddenly, a CIA observation plane — supporting the Peruvian Air Force program of shooting down cocaine-trafficking planes — identified the single-motor aircraft as a possible target. “I don’t know whether it’s a bandito or an amigo,” said one of the agents viewing the surveillance images.

After a tense, confused situation, aggravated by language difficulties, the tailing Peruvian jet opened fire, and the aircraft crash-landed into a river. “I think we’re making a mistake,” says one of the agents. It was already too late: a bullet passed through Veronica’s chest and lodged in the skull of Charity, the couple’s seven-month-old child.

The couple were missionaries, originally from Michigan, the United States. They were, of course, carrying no drugs in the plane. Washington subsequently recognized that the shoot-down program — in force since 1995 — was “plagued with errors” and it was discontinued. A similar program in Colombia was also dismantled.

“The [intelligence] community’s performance in terms of accountability has been unacceptable,” concluded former Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-MI). “These were Americans that were killed with the help of their government, the community covered it up, they delayed investigating.”

Capital Punishment

Fourteen years later, and Peruvian legislators have revived the idea of shooting down civilian planes. It is, without doubt, a dreadful idea. A government bill has just passed the first step in the Congress Defense Committee, and everything points to Peruvian military jets being able to open fire on suspicious aircraft once more.

The Peruvian case isn’t isolated. In Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, and Colombia, legislation exists that authorizes the shooting down of civilian planes. In fact, these countries have legalized extrajudicial execution and reinstalled the death penalty, even contravening their own legislation and international treaties.

A state of war is the only justification for giving the armed forces the authority to hand out death sentences without due process, denying the right to defense, and ignoring every check on state power. And this is the very argument Peruvian congressmen are using to sanction the law: Peru is at war.

The Peruvian battlefield isn’t dotted with mines, trenches, or control posts, but rather plantations of coca, the precursor to cocaine. Since 2012, Peru has boasted the dubious honor of being the world’s largest producer of coca leaves. Despite a reduction of 17.5 percent in the cultivated surface area of the crop between 2012 and 2013, according to a report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, production only fell by 5.8 percent.

This discrepancy speaks to the huge capacity of narco-traffickers to adapt to new conditions. The implementation of shoot-down policies only served to stimulate the creativity of distributors, just as the government’s efforts to reduce the acreage of coca plantations pushed producers to use more intensive technology, employ growth chemicals and pesticides, and perfect cultivation techniques.

Colombia: Another Failed Example

Colombia, which resumed its program of shooting down narco-planes in 2003 — two years after the Bowers tragedy in Peru — offers a clear example of the inefficiency of anti-drug efforts. In testimony before the US Congress in 2010, the Government Accountability Office reported that “drug traffickers typically used go-fast boats and fishing vessels to smuggle cocaine from Colombia to Central America and Mexico en route to the United States.” It even revealed that drug runners were using submarines to avoid aerial interception.

Nor are the results impressive. Between December 2003 and July 2005, the Colombian Air Force identified 48 suspicious aircraft. Only 14 were intercepted, and soldiers confiscated drugs in a single instance. Meanwhile, the supposed success enjoyed by Peru in the 1990s — when coca production was reduced — only led to to cultivation being transferred to Colombia, where it grew. Later the process was reversed: production diminished in Colombia, only to increase in Peru.

Alongside the new Peruvian proposal, the United States and Colombia are developing new procedures to avoid the shooting of planes with innocents on board. However, these procedures were in place in 2001, but the Peruvian Air Force ignored them, according to accusations by the United States. What’s more, the latest bill in Lima could even increase the freedom of pilots to pull the trigger, as it currently seems that it won’t involve US cooperation.

What Constitution?

Although the Peruvian Constitution prohibits capital punishment — excepting cases of terrorism or treason — the shooting of civilian planes is virtually the death penalty, or, in the best case scenario, corporal punishment. None of the occupants of the aircraft have the ability to consult with a lawyer, or be judged by an impartial court. Due process for narco-traffickers, or those suspected of being one, has now become a privilege.

The case makes us wonder whether the “war on drugs” shouldn’t be renamed. The war is being waged, in fact, against the rule of law, and consumers who choose a different lifestyle. It’s also difficult to conceive of it as a war, in the traditional sense, since we’re not dealing with two belligerent parties.

Anti-drug laws are the chief culprit behind the violence. The legalization of marijuana in the United States has demonstrated that the gangs are displaced when the business is legalized; in Colorado, it’s businessmen, not narcos, who supply the market. But governments show little inclination to understanding it. War, after all, is the health of the state.

Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.

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