The War of Drugs

Posted: Apr 24, 2001 12:00 AM
The war on drugs has claimed two more victims this week: a Baptist missionary and her infant daughter. The two were killed when a Peruvian fighter shot down the single-engine plane in which they were traveling, believing the aircraft carried drugs, not missionaries. The victims, Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, were returning to Iquitos, Peru, from a short trip up the Amazon River to the border of Colombia. Traveling with Veronica were her husband, James, her 6-year-old son, Cory, and a pilot, Kevin Donaldson, who was also injured in the attack. Both the Bowers and Donaldson were members of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, a group active in missionary work in the Andean nations. But most horrifying of all, the accident occurred in what was a joint U.S.-Peruvian operation in which American tracking planes identify potential drug runners, and the Peruvian military intercept the planes, force them to land and shoot them down when necessary. This time the Americans and the Peruvians were dead wrong. Is it fair to think of this tragic mistake as a casualty of the drug war? And if so, who is to blame? For years, the United States has tried to stop drugs at their source: in the coca and poppy fields of South America and Asia, where the crops grow and are later turned into cocaine and heroin. The United States provides about $48 million to Peru to stop illicit drugs from that country from ending up on American streets, part of $1.8 billion in such assistance to all Latin American nations. Among U.S. programs is one that aids the Peruvian military to intercept drug traffickers who often operate small, single-engine planes like the ones carrying the Baptist missionaries. According to the New York Times, for many years the United States refused to participate in the Peruvian program because government officials were concerned that Americans could be held accountable if innocent lives were lost. But in 1995, Congress passed a law absolving Americans or their contractors for liability so long as there were "appropriate procedures in place to protect against innocent loss of life," which included, at a minimum, warning aircraft before the use of force. In the latest incident, three American crewmen -- on contract to the CIA -- and a Peruvian officer were flying surveillance when they spotted the missionaries' Cessna as it headed over the Amazon jungle. According to newspaper accounts, the American crew accuse the Peruvian officer of failing to follow proper procedures before giving the order to an accompanying Peruvian Air Force jet to shoot down the small plane. Apparently, the Peruvians shot first and asked questions later. It's hard to know whom to blame. We've engaged the Peruvians in our drug war because Peruvians grow, harvest and process the crops that, when turned into cocaine, ruin millions of American lives. But if the demand for cocaine -- or heroin, or any of the dozens of other illicit drugs -- wasn't there, there would be no need to enlist the Peruvians in our war or send Americans to ferret out drug smugglers thousands of miles from U.S. borders. In 1998, the last year for which statistics are available, Americans spent $66 billion on illegal drugs, including almost $40 billion on cocaine alone. That represents about 291 metric tons of cocaine. To subsistence farmers in Latin America and Asia, whose families barely eke out a living as it is, the American appetite for drugs presents an almost irresistible market for their crops. Of course they earn only a tiny fraction of the billions the drug trade represents, with others farther up the distribution chain earning the most money.