YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


In the Grip of Drug War Logic, an 'Isolated Incident' Isn't

April 29, 2001|PETER H. SMITH | Peter H. Smith, director of Latin American studies at the University ofCalifornia, San Diego, is author of "Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.-Latin American Relations."

SAN DIEGO — It came as a shock: the news 10 days ago that two American citizens, a 35-year-old missionary woman and her infant daughter, were killed when a Peruvian air force jet shot down their unarmed Cessna seaplane over the Amazon jungle. The woman's husband and 7-year-old son survived, as did the pilot, who was hospitalized with a gunshot wound to the leg.

They were casualties of the war on drugs. In this instance a U.S. government tracking aircraft, piloted by contract employees of the CIA, notified the Peruvian military that an allegedly suspicious plane was in the area. After hasty consultation, a Peruvian A-37 fighter went up to investigate. Less than an hour later, the jet pilot opened fire on what turned out to be an innocent civilian aircraft.

Under a program dating back to 1994, the CIA and other U.S. agencies are authorized to assist Peru in the interdiction of aircraft when there is "reasonable suspicion" that they are trafficking in drugs. The purpose has been to interrupt the flow of cocaine paste from Peru to Colombia, where it is transformed into cocaine powder and then exported to U.S. and other markets.

As word of the disaster spread, exculpation and finger-pointing predictably ensued. The U.S. Department of Defense made clear that it was not involved. The CIA asserted that the surveillance plane was under contract employees, not full-time agents, and that they were not involved in the shoot-down. American authorities claimed that Peruvians had failed to take appropriate precautionary measures before authorizing the attack. Peruvian officials expressed regret for the loss of life but claimed that their pilot had fired only "as a final recourse."

The two governments have agreed to suspend the interdiction program, pending a thorough review. Presumably, the investigation will determine who was at fault and why. One or more Peruvian officers might be cashiered. Then, perhaps with stronger safeguards, aerial interdiction will probably resume.

It will be lamentable if this is all that happens.

Precisely because it is so gruesome, the tragedy calls for a reevaluation of its ultimate cause: the U.S. war on drugs. Since the early 1980s, U.S. policy has placed inordinate emphasis on reducing the supply of illicit drugs, mainly through eradication of crops and interdiction of shipments. Reduce the supply, according to this logic, and prices will climb to the point where would-be consumers can no longer afford them. Demand will decline, and all will be well.

That is the basis for U.S. action in Peru and for massive aid, mostly military, to neighboring Colombia. Since 1994, the aerial interdiction program in Peru has led to the downing of at least 30 planes and to the grounding of dozens more. Proponents hail these efforts as a major reason for a two-thirds decline in coca production in Peru. They usually fail to note that Colombia has picked up almost all the slack, and that cocaine is as available on the U.S. market as it ever was. The evidence is clear: As long as demand is strong, suppression of supply in one location leads to an increase somewhere else.

In pursuit of its strategy, the United States has made a second mistake: reliance upon the military, its own and (especially) that of other countries. One justification for this tactic, widely challenged by fact, is that military forces are less susceptible to corruption than the police. Another argument is that only force, rather than careful investigation and intelligence, will disrupt the trafficking rings. Shoot now, ask later--almost by definition this results in human rights abuses, as it leads to attacks on people who have been neither charged with nor convicted of criminal activity.

In collaborating with Peru, the U.S. has made a third mistake: allying itself with one of the most unsavory militaries in all Latin America. This is not to impugn individuals involved in last week's incident. But under the autocratic Alberto Fujimori and his mysterious henchman, Vladimiro Montesinos, the Peruvian military became notorious for its corruption, impunity and abuse of human rights. It would have been hard to pick a less desirable partner.

Add these elements together, and this is what you get: A shoot-down of innocent civilians. It was not an "isolated incident," as the White House recently claimed. It was a logical outcome of flawed and shortsighted policy.

Is there an alternative?

Most serious analysts of the drug trade argue that the U.S. government should give top priority to the reduction of demand, rather than supply. This means not only prevention and education for children, but also treatment and rehabilitation for addicts. It would require a serious reallocation of the federal drug budget, nearly two-thirds of which is now devoted to law enforcement.

Second, the United States should concentrate law enforcement on key aspects of the trade--especially money laundering--rather than possession or street-level distribution. Like other entrepreneurs, drug traffickers are in search of profits. Bust their profits and you bust their operation.

Third, the United States should engage countries of Latin America--including Colombia and Peru--in a multilateral effort to reduce the growing consumption of dangerous drugs throughout the hemisphere. Instead of recruiting them as allies in a semi-military war against supply, we could bring these nations together in a collaborative effort to reduce demand.

An approach of this kind could save lives at home and spare them abroad. If such steps are adopted, the death of a mother and child might not have been entirely in vain.

Los Angeles Times Articles