Sign Up for Free Mailing List

May 1, 2001

Narco News 2001

More Holes in the

Peru Plane Cover-Up

By Peter Gorman

Publisher's Note: On February 19, authentic journalist Peter Gorman, who has spent much of the past 18 years in the Iquitos region of Peru, near the Colombian border, wrote a story for The Narco News Bulletin that raised a lot of eyebrows at the time. Gorman reported that U.S.-paid mercenaries, from the private sector, were assembled in the Iquitos region with "shoot-to-kill" orders as part of the U.S.-imposed "Plan Colombia" military intervention program.

Some people found that story hard to believe - nothing had been reported in the U.S. media about it until then. But today, now that Veronica and Charity Bowers, from a dedicated family of Baptist missionaires, lost their lives last month when U.S. CIA-sponsored private contractors were involved in the events leading to a shoot-down of their plan - purportedly for drugs, although there were no drugs - Gorman's story now makes perfect sense to everyone. In fact, for the first time, the U.S. media is reporting on the matter of private-sector mercenaries in the Iquitos region.

This latest report from Gorman will also be accepted by history as the best and most knowledgeable analysis of what the United States government is doing with an atrocity-in-progress called Plan Colombia.

The consequences of this information reach high - Gorman suggests the missionaries' small aircraft may have been shot down intentionally to frighten and remove other potential eyewitnesses from the border region in preparation for the Plan Colombia atrocities yet to come. But let the chips fall where they may, and let the heavens fall. Better the heavens than innocent citizens who fell from Amazon skies days ago. This is your war. This is your war on drugs.

IQUITOS, PERU - On Friday, April 20th at 9:43 AM, a US Department of Defense radar-aircraft manned by three former US-military men who were under contract to the CIA and one Peruvian Air Force officer, notified the US-controlled radar station at Peru's Morona Cocha military base that it had sighted a plane that had crossed 3-4 miles into Brazilian territory just off the Jivari river, the Peruvian border with Brazil.

According to US officials, a second sighting of the plane occurred 12 minutes later, when the same aircraft re-entered Peruvian airspace. US officials say the American crew then asked Peruvian authorities to determine if the craft had filed a flight plan; when told it hadn't the Peruvian authorities decided to launch an intercept and attempted to make radio contact; when they couldn't they began firing, despite the desperate pleas of the CIA contract pilots to halt the assault. About one hour and twenty minutes from the time the plane was spotted re-entering Peruvian airspace, it was shot down. Two passengers, 35-year-old missionary Veronica Bowers and her seven-month old adopted daughter Charity, were killed in the Peruvian fighter jet's assault. Three other passengers, Bowers' husband, Jim, 38, and their son, Cory, 7, were uninjured. The pilot, 42-year-old Kevin Donaldson, was shot in the legs and is recovering.

On the surface, the story is clean. The US routinely runs radar checks on planes flying in Peru as part of a program that has been in place since 1995. When they spot a suspected drug plane Peruvian authorities are alerted and a call made on whether to shoot it out of the sky or try to force it to land. This should be a simple case of mistaken identity and an unfortunate accident, but it may be more than that. In 1995, the US and Peru came to an agreement on trying to stop the air transport of basta, coca base, from Peru, to the refining labs in Colombia. As part of the agreement, the US built a radar station just outside Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon.

Photographic Evidence of U.S. Troops along the Perú-Colombia Border
Photos by U.S. Marine Sgt. Chet Decker and Staff Sgt. Chuck Albrecht

The base is run by former Special Forces troops. The US runs the radar and suggests which planes might be drug-planes; the Peruvian airforce does the dirty work. The reason for the US running the radar show is to keep temptation away from Peruvian officials who might be taking bribes. But according to Peruvian pilots formerly involved in the program-who for obvious reasons won't give their names-no plane is intercepted or shot down unless the US gives the go-ahead. And this is where the story of the shootdown as reported in Reuters and the AP falls apart.

Publisher's note: See also the comments of former U.S. DEA agent in Peru, Cele Castillo, in this issue of Narco News, who confirms that "Nobody shoots down anything unless the CIA says so."

By Sunday morning the US was changing it's official story to accept that it had notified Peruvian authorities of the sighting but was officially claiming that it had tried to prevent the shoot-down. "The US crew repeatedly expressed their concern that the nature of the aircraft had not been determined," a US official in Washington told Reuters. "Despite serious concerns raised by the US crew, the shoot-down was authorized by Peruvian authorities." One report had the Peruvian pilots as cowboys who shot the Bowers' plane against US wishes. While that is not an impossibility, that's not the way it's generally done in Peru. The US calls the shots, period, and since only roughly 40% of the planes they recommend for downing can be connected with the drug trade-again, according to pilots who have been part of the program-Peru takes the public heat for downing innocent planes, but explains that it only does what the US asks and thus keeps its hands clean.

The US makes the calls but doesn't do any shooting, thus it too keeps its hands clean. The reason so many planes have been downed wrongly is simply the reality of small plane traffic in the Amazon region of Peru: They're generally old puddle-jumping Cessnas and very few have any instrumentation left, including radios, and fewer still file flight plans. They're generally piloted by bush pilots who fly by sight at low altitudes, basically running errands for people who live our work out on the rivers in the dense jungle.

This case was different. The Cessna 185 had full instrumentation. Moreover, while the US insists the CIA-contract plane contacted the Peruvian air tower in Iquitos to inquire about the Cessna's flight plan and were told it had none, it is now possible to download copies of that flight plan from CNN or from the American Baptists for World Evangelism's website.

The Peruvian air tower initially agreed there had been a flight plan filed-showing the plane leaving Iquitos for Islandia the day before the shootdown, a tiny Peruvian city on the river border between Peru and Brazil and returning the following day. The Peruvian air controllers later amended their statement to say the plan was filed while the plane was in flight back to Iquitos from Islandia. Two of those accounts have to be inaccurate.

Moreover, the Bowers' plane was in regular radio contact with Iquitos throughout its flight, including the moment when it was shot down just outside of the river city of Pevas, about 100 air miles outside of Iquitos. The US version of the story to date is this: the US plane, operated by CIA contract agents spotted a suspicious plane and alerted the Peruvian authorities to the possibility that it was a drug plane. The Peruvian air tower in Iquitos mistakenly told the US crew that the Bowers' plane had not filed a flight plan, compounding the suspicions that it was a drug plane. The interceptor jet then tried to reach the Bowers' plane on the radio but only tried military frequencies, which the Bowers' were not on. The Peruvians then seriously breached military protocol by shooting down the plane while the US plane heroically and frantically tried to call them off. In sum: the deaths are tragic; the fault lies with the Peruvians who made multiple errors and seriously breached standard protocol for the situation. That story does not hold up to scrutiny and only raises several questions.

First: The shooting occurred more than 160 miles from the original sighting. The Bowers' Cessna 185 has a top speed of 130 MPH. In this case it was probably slower as it was near full-load with five passengers. Which means it took 80-90 minutes to reach the intercept point. The Peruvian fighter jet was a Cessna A37B, which has a flight speed of 507 MPH. Taking off from the military airport in Iquitos then it could have made the flight to the intercept point at Pevas in about 15 minutes. So the first question is why did the intercept take place where it did and not closer to the Brazilian/Peruvian border? To occur near Pevas meant the Peruvian jet either took more than an hour to take off, or the shoot down was purposely timed to occur at Pevas.

That it took the Peruvian jet more than an hour to take off seems unreasonable given that the crew is on 24-hour alert for exactly the purpose of intercepting drug-smuggling planes. That the intercept was timed to occur at Pevas would imply that it was intended that there be witnesses to the shootdown-Pevas is the largest city on the Amazon between Iquitos and the Brazilian border, with a population of about 4,000. It also has a Peruvian military base, the closest base along the Peruvian Amazon to the Putumayo river, which is the Peruvian border with Colombia and territory under the control of Colombia's FARC rebels. The region is currently being militarily bolstered on the Peruvian side (See FTW March, 01) in anticipation of the-presumably-imminent start of Plan Colombia bloodshed which is anticipated to drive FARC rebels across the Putumayo onto Peruvian soil. Who stood to gain in this scenario?

A second question involves the alleged attempts of the Peruvian fighter jet to reach the Bowers' plane on the radio. That the Bowers' radio was on and working has been confirmed by the air traffic controllers in Iquitos. The Peruvian government claims its pilots tried and to communicate by radio with the Bowers' on three separate frequencies during that time. But the Peruvian's allegedly only tried to communicate on military frequencies. Why didn't they try the standard commercial frequencies even once during the entire 80-90 minutes it took from the time they were alerted to the Bowers' plane's existence until they shot it down. Was it simply a human error on their part? Or were they under orders or military protocol not to communicate with their target?

Human error-simply forgetting to change frequencies-seems unlikely since these are professional military officers well trained in just this sort of activity. But if they were either under orders not to communicate with their target whose orders were they?

A third question relates to what occurred after the Bowers' plane had made its emergency landing in the Amazon. One wing was already on fire, according to both Jim Bowers and Kevin Donaldson. Yet both Bowers and Donaldson have said the Peruvians continued to strafe them after they landed. Why? It is certainly not normal military protocol in dealing with unarmed planes. There are no roads out, so why fire on them while they languished in the river? Who ordered that? Were the Peruvians simply blood thirsty? Or is it possible they realized a terrible mistake had been made and were trying to ignite the Bowers' fuel to eliminate the evidence of the error?

Another question relates to the initial CIA contract team's identification of the Bowers' plane as a possible drug-smuggling plane. US procedures demand that US planes attempt to identify planes by their tail numbers. The Bowers' plane's number was clearly marked and the US initially did not answer the press' questions regarding the issue.

On Tuesday, April 24, several days after the shootdown, The Washington Post reported that US officials had explained that the CIA contract crew had breached its own identification procedures because they were afraid that the suspected drug plane-the Bowers' plane- would flee the country if they got close enough to read the tail numbers. The Post further reported that the US claims the CIA contract crew gave the tail number-identification task to the Peruvians, and that they failed to follow through. The Peruvians do not agree with the US story.

Peruvian Prime Minister Javier Perez de Cuellar, the former U.N. secretary-general, has defended the Peruvian military in the shootdown. On Tuesday, April 24, in his government's first official response to the US allegations that the shootdown was Peru's fault, he said "For the time being, it would be hasty to say that the Peruvian air force is responsible, or that the pilot of the [missionary] airplane was responsible." If the events unfolded the way the US claims there are too many unanswered questions. The Bower's plane was well known around Iquitos: the Bowers' had been there a long time and made regular flights from-and-to the city. Could the Peruvians really have simply shot it on their own? Would the pilots risk their position, and very likely jail time, to shoot down the Bowers' plane on their own? And even if they were authorized to shoot it down by someone, why would they risk their posts and jail time by continuing to strafe it once it was in flames on the Amazon? And again, why in front of Pevas, a reasonably good sized river town with a military base.

There were hundreds of witnesses to the entire affair. If there were some reason to want the Bowers' dead, why do it at Pevas? Between Pevas and the next town toward the Brazilian border there is a stretch of nearly 100 miles of almost nothing but tiny villages and a leper colony. The Peruvian craft certainly had the speed to intercept at any point along that stretch. Was there a purpose in making the intercept near the closest large town to the Colombian border and FARC territory? Was someone trying to make it look as though the plane was coming out of Colombia? In truth, Peruvians don't shoot down planes without the authorization of the US.

And of all the planes shot down during the several years of the joint US/Peruvian interdiction program-25 are admitted to, though local figures put it several times higher than that-none has been shot down entering Peruvian airspace.

Planes are shot down leaving, because when they leave they are carrying coca paste to Colombia for refining.

But planes entering Peruvian airspace, particularly drug-running planes, are entering with cash. Nobody shoots down planes loaded with cash. They are simply forced down so their cash can be confiscated. So very little of the official US story makes sense the way it was told, unless the Peruvians were completely at fault, either through utter incompetence or malicious intent. What might the real story be?

One important background event must be put into the equation at this point: On the day the Bowers' plane was shot down the Third Summit of the Americas was opening in Quebec. With the exception of Fidel Castro the head of every country in the Americas was present, including George Bush. He was pushing the ratification of the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement. In recent weeks he has also changed the name of Clinton's Plan Colombia to The Andean Initiative and has been working hard to give it his own stamp.

But just weeks before the summit, Uruguay's President Jorge Batlle Ibanez proposed the worldwide legalization of drugs when he told The Washington Post, "Imagine the money you spend to impede drug traffic and imagine that huge amount of resources on education for the people who really need help." Moreover, he had promised to lobby for drug legalization in a speech in front of all 34 heads of state at the Quebec Summit. Given that as a background, could it be that the downing of the Bowers' plane was a high-profile publicity stunt that went bad? Would it be a leap to imagine the CIA contract crew was told it would be just terrific if they managed to intercept a drug smuggling plane during the summit? Better yet, if a drug plane were thought to be carrying drugs from the FARC rebels, the primary targets of Plan Colombia/the Andean Initiative. That publicity would completely defuse Uruguay's drug legalization message by tying drugs to revolutionary movements in bright, bold letters.

Now if that suggestion was made to the US CIA contract crew and they thought they had a drug smuggling plane when they caught radar-sight of the Bowers' Cessna, all of the rest of the questions would be answered: The call was given to the Peruvian authorities to intercept and take down the craft. The location would place the shootdown in front of Pevas, ensuring witnesses and, because of Pevas being less than 60 mile proximity to Colombian FARC held territory, the suggestion could be made that it was a FARC drug-smuggling plane. No radio contact was made because the order to kill was given in code by the US. When it was later determined that the Bowers' plane was not a drug-smuggling plane the US desperately tried to call off the kill. But the order, once given, could not be rescinded. Which would explain why the Bowers' were strafed even after their emergency landing and while their plane was on fire. At that point it would be better to simply explode the plane to eliminate the evidence and give both the US and Peru more time to come up with credible and matching stories about the shootdown.

That scenario would also explain why the US story has changed daily since the shootdown. It would also explain why Peru says it is not at fault in the incident.

Peter Gorman is a Senior Editor for High Times Magazine and a veteran journalist who has spent many years living in Peru. He can be contacted at

This is Your War. This is Your War on Drugs.