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Pirates of the Air and Seas

Scenes from the Drug War

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Scenes from the Drug War

Imagine, you’re flying at a height of 34,000 feet somewhere over the Persian Gulf; you see a fighter plane with what appear to be Saudi markings not far off on the port side. Next thing you know, the fellow next to you, with whom you’d been drinking gin and tonic only a moment before, is slumped forward with a machine gun bullet through his heart. The plane’s depressurized from the bullet breaking the window but the pilot manages to land. Two are dead from the salvo, which many witnesses aboard your plane agree came from that Saudi plane.

Of course there’s a big stink because the dead guys are both American. In the end it turns out that, under certain secret protocols in Saudi law, craft (whether maritime, airborne or terrestrial) suspected of harboring substances forbidden by the Koran, like alcohol, can be subject to “interdiction”, i.e. shot up or down. The Saudi pilot claimed he’d waggled his wings at the passenger plane, indicating that it should follow him. Only after repeated efforts to signal had finally fired the fatal.

All a fantasy of course. True, the Saudi royal family doesn’t endorse public consumption of alcohol, but it isn’t in the business of shooting down booze-laden planes, however well informed the Saudi Royal Air Force might be about the consumption of gin aboard the suspect plane. And who knows, the Saudi royal family might even have reservations about the prudence, not to mention legality, of firing on civil aircraft.

But suppose the drug in question isn’t booze but cocaine. And suppose the shooter’s sponsor and legal protector isn’t the puny Saudi royal family but the Government of the United States?

In that case we have as policy guide the decision memorandum signed by President Bill Clinton in June of 1994, bringing “closure”, to use a fashionable term, to acrimony within the administration on this issue. The documents in question are all available from the National Security Archive, whose Kate Doyle sued for them under the Freedom of Information Act.

As the Archive’s preamble to the documents narrates, the U.S. began sharing real-time aerial tracking
information with Colombia and Peru in July of 1990. When the Colombians told the US they were thinking of a shootdown policy for suspected drug planes, the US State Department got nervous about possible legal ramifications, if US advisors were involved, as they undoubtedly would be. So the State Department proclaimed piously that both U.S. and international law precluded the use of weapons against civilian aircraft except in self-defense. The Colombians said they wouldn’t give up on the idea but would shelve it, at least for a while.

Peru adopted a force down policy in 1993, and at the end of that year the Colombians (probably after back channel prodding from the US shootdown faction) said they would now implement the shootdown strategy formulated in 1990. A U.S. interagency group began a review of the new policies in January 1994. On May 1 the Clinton administration, led by the Department of Defense, announced a suspension on the sharing of real-time aerial tracking data with the two governments.

This was the signal for savage hand-to-hand bureaucratic combat inside the US government. On the one side were ranged those departments and agencies deriving funding and a sense of mission in life from the War on Drugs: the State Department’s bureaus of International Narcotics
Matters (INM) and Inter-American Affairs (ARA), not to mention DEA, CIA, Customs, and so forth.

On the other side were the teams at the State Department’s legal department and at Justice, offering the view that it was a perilous strategy to shoot down civil planes and that “mistakes are likely to occur under any policy that contemplates the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight, even as a last resort.” Veterans at State remembered the tremendous, self-righteous stink raised by the US after the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Airliner (KAL 007) which had penetrated its air space. The State Department cited a 1984 amendment of the Chicago Convention on civil aviation – adopted in the wake of the KAL incident – banning the use of force against civil aircraft.

In the end Clinton characteristically tried to please both factions, while going along with the hawks. On June 21, l994, he secretly okayed US cooperation with Colombia and Peru’s shoot-down/force-down policy, allowing US aerial tracking data to be used in operations against suspicious aircraft “if the President has determined that such actions are necessary because of the threat posed by drug trafficking [sic] to the national security of that country and that the country has appropriate procedures in place to protect innocent aircraft.”

As one bureaucrat happily noted, this Solomonic compromise would “reduce the [US government's] exposure to criticism that such assistance violates international law.” Colombia and Peru would be instructed that one way to cope with the difficulties presented by international agreements against shooting down civil aircraft would be to declare a “national emergency” as permitted under the relevant conventions. Another stratagem contemplated a campaign to convince nations deemed “aviation partners” to accept a “narrow exception” to international law in cases where “drug trafficking threatens the political institutions of a state and where the country imposes strict procedures to reduce the risk of attack against non-drug trafficking aircraft.”

One element was conspicuous by its absence. Nowhere in the torrent of US advice to Peru and Colombia was there any hint that military and intelligence assistance from the US might be conditioned on a solution to the international legal problems. Significantly, the document notes that, “The President explicitly did not condition the resumption of assistance on a solution to the international law problems associated with the USG’s provision of such assistance.” As the US State Department proudly (but of course secretly) boasted to President Samper of Colombia in December of that year, the Clinton administration had made “a tremendous legal and administrative effort” to get the intelligence sharing arrangements back on track. Ambassador Busby was told to tell President Samper, that “Because narcotics is very important to us, the administration expended a great deal of effort to change U.S. law and permit us to resume our cooperation.”

By the way, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association did think the policy was a lousy idea.

The world took notice in March of this year when a family of evangelical Baptists, having concluded a bout of predatory spiritual rampages among the hapless Indians along the Peruvian Amazon, was halved in size, after a bullet fatally pierced Veronica and Charity Bower (mother and 7-month infant) while wounding Cessna pilot Kevin Donaldson and sparing the Baptist paterfamilias, Jim Bower, and his son Cory.

Magnanimously, Bower he had “no hard feelings” and could see God at work in their deaths from gunfire by the Peruvian air force. “Cory and I are experiencing inexplicable peace, and to me that’s proof that God is in this,” Bowers told about 600 mourners at the funeral of his wife and daughter. “Our attitude toward those responsible is one of forgiveness. Is that not amazing? It shouldn’t be amazing to us Christians.’ “Roni and Charity were instantly killed by the same bullet. To me that’s pretty amazing. That bullet stayed in Charity’s head, not going through Kevin’s back, causing the rest of us to die.” By sparing him, his son and Donaldson, Bowers said God must have something bigger in mind for them, although he didn’t know what it was.

Of course, if an Amazonian Indian shaman had successfully aimed a heat-seeking missile at the Bowers on the very reasonable grounds (sustainable by profuse historical evidence) that the evangelical Baptists were a threat to the national security of his tribe, there would have been no end of trouble for the shaman.

But this was no shaman, this was the Peruvian Air Force, ordered to fire by a high ranking Peruvian officer on the ground. And this was the CIA, in the sub-contracted guise of Aviation Development Corp, out of Maxwell AFB in Alabama, flying above the Amazon (two Anglos and one Peruvian, not able to talk to each other very well owing to language barriers) telling the Peruvian Air Force that an unidentified plane was approaching Iquitos. And this was long-range US radar based in Vieques, Puerto Rico, advising the CIA subcontractors about the unidentified plane. And this was US Southern Military Command, monitoring the whole scene from its war room in Key West. What a very large mass of people and resources to be watching one small plane which, if you believe Mr Bower, was also being tracked by the mightiest radar of them all, the Big Fellow himself.

It turns out the CIA, the subcontractors and Southcom and Colombia and Peru have been responsible for downing anywhere from 25 to 30 small planes over the passage of the years since 1994. Who were they? No one seems to know and please, the occupants of these planes weren’t murdered in acts of international terrorism and piracy. No, they were “successfully interdicted”, thus bringing a glow of satisfaction to the cheeks of those waging the war on drugs.

Okay. Now you’re in your cruise ship, in the Indonesian archipelago, still sipping at your gin and tonic. Muslims board the boat, ransack your possessions. Yes, they’re dead set against booze

We’ll cut the satirical parable short and remind you that in mid May the US Coastguard ecstatically announced the largest haul in US maritime drug enforcement’s history: an alleged $1 billion’s worth of cocaine, (13 tons) found after five arduous days’ search aboard a freighter in the eastern Pacific the Svesda Maru, a 152-foot trawler flying the flag of Belize. Two Russians and 10 Ukrainians were charged with drug smuggling and jailed at the federal prison in downtown San Diego.

On March 4, another Belize-flagged fishing ship, the Forever My Friend, with 8.8 tons of cocaine, had been towed into San Diego after being seized 250 miles west of Acapulco.

Count up the seeming breaches of laws and treaties here, starting with piracy on the high seas and use of US Navy ships for law enforcement. But it turns out when US Customs or Coastguard is alerted by the US Navy or Air Force to suspicious craft outside territorial waters, they phone the State Department, which phones the nation under whose flag the suspect is floating and gets the green light. So Belize is going to say No?

And just to cope with the Posse Comitatus Act forbidding the US military to be involved in civil law enforcement there was a Coastguard unit aboard the Navy’s ship. You want to ask about the likelihood of a fair and speedy trial for those Russians and Ukrainians now in the federal pen in San Diego?

Want to have the spring’s drug headlines wrapped up for you? The US Supreme Court defies the clear intent of voters in nine states and says medical marijuana is a no-no and a London newspaper reports that in London in 1995 a gram of cocaine cost around $120, but the same amount can now be picked up for about $80. The new drug czar, John Walters, picked after three months by former cocaine dealer George Bush (at Yale, in ounce bags according to one source) says the war on drugs can be won.

Gin and tonic, anyone? CP