Closing the Latin American Air-Bridge:

JoAnn Kawell


On Capitol Hill, outrage is now running high over the case of the U.S. missionary and her infant daughter who were killed after the CIA-contracted crew of a U.S. surveillance plane tagged the missionaries’ Cessna as a suspected drug carrier and a Peruvian air force plane shot the civilian craft out of the sky. But as the Washington Post reported on April 27, “repeatedly in the 1980s, members of Congress tried to allow the U.S. Customs Service, the Coast Guard and other agencies to fire on planes suspected of carrying drugs,” despite the fact that such actions would be a clear violation of international law.

While the (first) Bush administration may have opposed Congressional efforts to make “shootdown” an official policy, as the Post reports, officials in that and succeeding administrations did support joint U.S./Peruvian “interdiction” efforts aimed at shutting down the small plane network used to transport unrefined cocaine “paste” from coca growing areas to refining labs. Drug control officials have long argued that severing this key link in the cocaine production chain would bring them much closer to victory in their “war.” However, a brief history of the joint efforts shows that “interdiction” is inherently dangerous–and counterproductive, because interdiction efforts must be continually escalated and expanded to keep up with trafficker responses.

In April 1987, three Bell 212 helicopters arrived in Peru. These were a U.S. contribution to an ongoing series of Peruvian anti-drug operations dubbed “Condor.” The Condor operations had been underway with U.S. funding, but Peruvian aircraft, since 1985, and one of the main goals was to destroy the small jungle airstrips where drug traffickers landed to make cocaine paste pickups. Condor airstrip bombings were a favorite of the Peruvian press and among drug war public relations experts: in October 1988 the “Year of International Narcotics Control” calendar published by the State Department featured a photo of a spectacularly exploding airstrip. The operations were more effective at generating publicity than stopping drug planes, though, since it was cheap and easy to build new strips elsewhere–or simply land on local roads.

Drug control officials then argued that in order for interdiction to be effective, they needed to target planes, not airstrips. Over the next few years, the drug controllers would place increasing emphasis on shutting down the so-called “air bridge” between Peru’s coca and cocaine paste-producing Huallaga Valley and the Colombian sites where paste was converted into finished cocaine. The Huallaga was then estimated to be the source of roughly two-thirds of world cocaine production. They argued that closing the air bridge would not just deny the cocaine processors their current supply of cocaine paste, but when traffickers stopped coming to the valley to buy paste, demand for coca would drop, giving coca farmers an incentive to leave the business. With no coca or cocaine paste being produced there, officials claimed, they would be well on the way to ending the illegal cocaine trade.

By the end of the Bush administration, the U.S. was reportedly discussing with the Peruvian government the creation of two U.S.-staffed radar sites in northern Peru, where they could keep electronic eyes on the Peruvian-Colombian border zone.

Peruvian officials weren’t squeamish about the fact that “interdiction” of planes captured by the radar would sometimes imply “shootdown,” and, back in Washington, U.S. politicians were calling for “shootdown,” but, since personnel who shot down civilian planes would be personally guilty of breaking international law, the Bush administration didn’t want to sign off on that part of the policy.

By 1994, however, despite the fact that U.S. military funds to Peru were embargoed because of the Peruvian military’s horrific human rights record, the Clinton administration had found ways to support the creation of a tracking system which included radar outposts in Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, as well as regular flights by high-tech Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes. And, with support from the Clinton administration, Congress granted immunity from prosecution to U.S. personnel who took part in drug trafficker “interception” operations. Though many critics of the policy pointed out the danger of civilian casualties, the main concern of most members of Congress seemed to be whether they would look “soft on drugs.” Some pressed for even further escalation of force: “Is this a war or not?” Republican Congressman Dan Burton demanded in March 1995, calling for aircraft carriers to be sent to the coasts of Colombia and Bolivia. (Burton was apparently unaware of the fact that Bolivia is landlocked.)

U.S. officials, however, preferred the lower-profile program making use of radar and high-tech surveillance planes to locate suspected trafficker aircraft. In the case of Peru, this information was passed on to Peruvian forces. In some thirty instances, the Peruvians have brought down suspicious planes; its not known how many of these were undertaken as a result of information passed on from the U.S. spy program. In their 1996 annual drug control report, State Department officials crowed that in two years the assault on the “air bridge” had caused coca prices to drop and reduced Huallaga coca production by 18%. But the victory seemed illusory, for in the U.S. the overall supply of the drug was little changed.

Within Peru, coca production was simply moving out of the Huallaga Valley into new locales. A United Nations-sponsored report showed huge increases in coca production in the jungle regions of Peru’s Puno department, in the river valleys of Apurimac, Aguaytia, and Pichis-Palcazu. Even more significantly, coca growing was on the upswing in Colombia as the Colombian cocaine producers looked for a new supply source. The State Department reported a startling 30% increase in Colombian coca production over the course of 1996. By the end of the decade, Colombia, which had never before been a major coca producer, had replaced Peru as the world’s biggest producer. Pressure on the “air bridge” between Peru and Colombia also caused traffickers to seek new ways of transporting their product.

In 1999 the New York Times reported that traffickers were now “plying rivers and traveling jungle paths on mules to avoid the police.” But they certainly didn’t give up their planes altogether; they simply found new air routes. Brazil, always the scene of small-scale cocaine transport, was gaining new importance as traffickers built up new transport routes through Brazilian jungle regions bordering new coca zones.

The supposedly successful closure of the “air bridge” hasn’t therefore meant the end of the joint U.S./Peruvian “surveillance” program, but rather increased the area where “interdiction” must occur. Since the area suitable for coca and cocaine production includes much of the Amazon basin, further pressure on coca producers will merely scatter production more widely in largely roadless areas where small planes are a basic mode of transportation. Unless the “shootdown” policy is abandoned–and the basic tenets of U.S. drug control policy along with it–deadly accidents like the recent one, are possible in an ever larger part of South America.

(JoAnn Kawell, an expert with Foreign Policy In Focus, has reported on the Andean drug war for National Public Radio, The Progressive and others. She can be reached at < >.)

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