WASHINGTON, May 21 The anti-drug program that led to
the downing of a plane carrying American missionaries in Peru last month
has provoked intense government debate since its inception, according to
current and former officials and government documents.
A Peruvian military jet, operating with spotters under
contract with the C.I.A., shot down the missionaries' plane on April 20
as part of an aggressive military operation to halt cocaine traffic
between Colombia and Peru. The operation has been suspended since the
incident, but it had continued for seven years after an explicit warning
from the State Department in 1994 that the program could result in
"There is a risk of killing people not involved in
criminal activity," the State Department warned in a memo on May
10, 1994, which was obtained by the National Security Archive, a private
research group. In the memo, department lawyers said involvement in
shooting down civilian aircraft would violate international law and
urged policy makers not to take part.
A former United States official who monitored the
operation said the use of combat aircraft against suspected drug
smugglers was understood to be dangerous from the outset. "Everyone
knew this was a high- gain, high-risk program," the official said.
But President Clinton still approved an American role in
1994, and an array of agencies including the C.I.A. poured into
the Andes to provide anti-drug intelligence and fly surveillance
alongside Peruvian and Colombian fighters. One State Department official
said at the time that failure to take part could lead critics to accuse
the Clinton administration of being weak on drugs.
American officials, seeking to defend their decision,
argue that the program was highly successful, at least locally, though
drug traffickers eventually found new ways to get their product to
But the program bound the United States to President
Alberto K. Fujimori of Peru, who ruled for a decade until he was finally
forced to flee last year in the face of scandal. That relationship in
turn led the Central Intelligence Agency to close ties to Vladimiro
Montesinos, the spymaster under President Fujimori.
For a decade, Mr. Montesinos was Peru's Mr. Fix-It, and
C.I.A. officials were convinced that American counternarcotics
operations in the region could not continue without his support.
Troubled by reports of his corruption and possible
involvement in rights abuses, the Clinton administration reviewed the
relationship with Mr. Montesinos in the mid- 1990's, but decided that
his power to command Peruvian cooperation in the drug war trumped
questions about his background.
The uncomfortable alliance posed a larger question about
the price of success in the Andean drug war, and recalled the C.I.A.'s
past ties elsewhere in Latin America, including those to Gen. Manuel
Antonio Noriega of Panama, who was ultimately ousted by American troops
The agency had justified its alliances with right-wing
figures from Guatemala to Chile on similiar grounds.
From the early 1950's, American policy makers from both
parties had concluded that terrorism and revolution and later,
traffic in illicit drugs to the United States had to be fought by
all available means.
Today Mr. Montesinos is a fugitive, accused in Peru of
crimes including involvement in massacres, arms trafficking, money
laundering and vote rigging. And American officials have been forced to
defend their decision to continue dealing with Mr. Fujimori and his
intelligence chief until late last year.
And the airborne anti-drug program in Peru has been
suspended while the downing of the missionaries' plane is investigated.
The shooting killed Veronica Bowers, of Michigan, and her infant
It is now plain that policy makers clearly understood
the risks of shooting down planes to stop drug trafficking, and of
dealing with Mr. Montesinos. The parallel tales cast light on the
little-known role played by the C.I.A. in the war on drugs.
The Risks - Program in Place, With Legal Shield
Peru's role as the largest source of coca paste and
cocaine base made the nation a linchpin in American efforts to stem the
flow of drugs. For years, American officials debated how best to halt
flights carrying coca paste from Peru into Colombia, where it was
processed into cocaine and shipped to the United States.
As early as the mid-1980's, C.I.A. officials considered
and rejected proposals to aid Peru and Colombia in shooting down
the planes, former agency officials said. "I remember someone
saying that there are a lot of missionaries flying around there, and you
might shoot down the wrong plane," said one former high- ranking
In 1992, the Peruvians fired on a United States C-130
airplane that was gathering intelligence on drug trafficking, killing a
The incident led to intensive talks over the rules of
engagement in the drug war, recalled Anthony Quainton, who was
ambassador to Peru from 1989 through 1992.
By the summer of 1992, the United States had established
radar stations in Peru to help track drug planes. The Peruvians, guided
by the radar, were forcing planes down, rather than shooting them, Mr.
It was not until 1994 that the Clinton administration
addressed whether to help Colombia and Peru with their plans to destroy
planes that refused to land.
Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's drug
czar, recalled in an interview that the Pentagon decided to suspend the
intelligence support as a result of a review of air operations worldwide
that was begun after 26 people were killed when two United States Air
Force F-15's shot down two Army Blackhawk helicopters over Iraq in April
The Defense Department was worried that Americans might
be held liable for the deaths of innocents.
But the administration was deeply divided. A cable dated
May 9, 1994, from the American Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, also
obtained by the National Security Archive, revealed the embassy's anger
with the suspension of intelligence support.
The order was "totally unnecessary and is driving us to
potentially seriously damage our narcotics cooperation in the key source
countries," the cable said.
Yet there were also clear warnings that aerial attacks carried huge
risks. For example, a separate State Department memo, also written in
May 1994, said the downing of an Iran Air commercial aircraft over the
Persian Gulf by a United States Navy warship in 1988 had demonstrated
that "even the best trained and equipped personnel can make
So that June, Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, sponsored
legislation that would exempt American officials from any liability
stemming from the destruction of suspected drug-trafficking planes. With
that protection in place, Mr. Clinton ordered American airmen and
technicians in December to join the Andean anti-drug operations.
The Program - Calling All Planes! The U.S. Moves In
Under the direction of the Pentagon's Southern Command, virtually
every agency with aviation resources provided surveillance support to
Peru and Colombia.
In Peru, the United States Customs Service brought in P-3 Orion
aircraft with radar systems that could monitor broad regions. The
Customs Service and C.I.A. also began to fly smaller Citation
surveillance aircraft to help Peruvian pilots intercept small planes.
The United States Air Force also had a role.
The flights were supported by intelligence collected by the National
Security Agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the C.I.A.,
according to American officials. The N.S.A., an eavesdropping and code-
breaking agency, passed on intercepted communications that indicated
when a drug plane was either in the air or about to fly, officials said.
During the next few years, the Peruvian Air Force shot down, grounded
or strafed at least 30 aircraft suspected of ferrying drugs. Pilots were
soon demanding huge fees to fly drugs, or refused to fly at all. The
price of coca began to plummet in Peru, and farmers switched to other
Although the cocaine cartels eventually found new routes and moved
coca production to Colombia, the interruption of the air bridge provided
the Clinton administration with a triumph however temporary in
the drug war.
The Liaison - Spymaster Makes an Unlikely Ally
On the ground, reports linking Mr. Montesinos, the spymaster, to two
massacres in Peru in the early 1990's prompted a review in Washington in
1995, and some State Department officials recommended severing the link.
But the C.I.A. maintained that his role was crucial to anti-drug
Agency officials now insist that they never defended Mr. Montesinos;
they say they merely pointed out that ending the relationship would end
Peru's cooperation in fighting the drug war. Agency officials also
argued that the evidence linking him to the killings was inconclusive.
"There were no show-stoppers in the record, things that said the
liabilities of dealing with this guy outweighed the advantages,"
said one former C.I.A. official who was involved in the debate.
Officials at other agencies disagreed, but the Clinton White House
ultimately concluded that limited contacts with Mr. Montesinos could
continue because of his importance to counternarcotics and
"Everybody was uncomfortable," said one official who worked
in the White House then, "but he was the guy who got things
Mr. Montesinos repeatedly signaled that he could not be ignored:
Twice in the late 1990's, he abruptly shut off Peruvian cooperation on
some anti-drug programs until he was invited to C.I.A. headquarters in
Langley, Va. Cooperation resumed after his visits.
It was not until last year, when charges of electoral fraud began to
weaken President Fujimori's grip, that the Clinton administration opened
another review of its ties to Mr. Montesinos. This time, it decided to
withdraw all support from the Fujimori government.
In September, the Peruvian media broadcast a videotape apparently
showing Mr. Montesinos bribing a Peruvian congressman, starting a
gradual collapse of the Fujimori government. Both the former spy chief
and his boss eventually fled the country.
The future of the airborne anti- drug program remains uncertain.