Published on Sunday, April 22, 2001 in the Washington Post
U.S. Notified Peru Of Suspect Plane
Amazon Surveillance Operation Identified Missionary Craft as Possible Drug Flight
by Anthony Faiola, Karen DeYoung and Ellen Nakashima
A U.S. government surveillance plane flying over northern Peru identified a small aircraft carrying American missionaries as a possible drug flight and passed the information to the Peruvian Air Force shortly before a Peruvian fighter jet shot it from the sky Friday morning, U.S. sources said.
A woman and her 7-month-old daughter were killed by rounds fired from the Peruvian plane. The missionary plane, a Cessna 185 that was flying from the Colombian border toward the city of Iquitos, 620 miles northeast of Lima, swerved to an emergency landing on the Amazon River. The pilot, who was shot in the leg, survived, as did the woman's husband and another of their children.
U.S. officials in Washington said that an investigation had been launched into the incident, and that the Peruvian government had pledged full cooperation. Both the United States and Peru have suspended their joint interdiction flights pending the outcome of the investigation, according to a U.S. Embassy source in Lima.
In Quebec City, where he was attending the Summit of the Americas, President Bush expressed sorrow over what the White House called a "tragic accident."
"The United States is certainly upset by the fact that two American citizens lost their lives," Bush told reporters.
There were sharp differences between Peru's insistence that correct procedures had been followed and the version provided by the U.S.-based Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, whose members were aboard the flight. Rev. E.C. Haskell, a spokesman for the missionary group, said that the pilot, Kevin Donaldson, had filed a flight plan at Iquitos. Donaldson was described as an experienced pilot in the Peruvian Amazon, a region where Protestant missionaries have been heavily active for decades.
Haskell said that Donaldson maintained radio contact with air traffic controllers at the Iquitos airport throughout the flight. He said the Peruvian military did not communicate with Donaldson, by radio or otherwise, before shots were fired directly into the aircraft.
Mario Justo, civil aviation chief at the Iquitos airport, insisted in a telephone interview today the missionaries had not filed an official flight plan. He said Peruvian civil aviation authorities had no knowledge of the flight until one radio transmission moments before the plane was shot down.
It was unclear whether the confrontation between the Peruvian jet and the missionaries' plane was visible to the U.S. surveillance plane. An official in Washington said that the U.S. military had monitored a communication between unknown parties calling for a halt in the interception.
"We monitored a communication that said you should not intercept with violence, to wait, hold off," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
International law and the intelligence-sharing agreement require that once U.S. officials identify a suspect plane, Peru's military must first determine if it filed a flight plan with nearby airports, and then attempt radio contact. If there is no response, intercepting fighters are to attempt hand signals to the pilot, then rock their wings -- an internationally recognized signal for "follow me." If all else fails, the intercepting jet is required to fire a warning shot across the nose of the plane before shooting at it directly.
A former U.S. official with close knowledge of the agreement and how it has operated in recent years said the Peruvians have observed those procedures meticulously in the more than two-dozen shootdowns since 1995, most of which were recorded on a sophisticated version of video tape by the U.S. surveillance planes. The Peruvian A-37s, he said, have no air-to-air radar and thus are "flying blind" until the U.S. surveillance aircraft directs them to the exact location of a suspect plane.
In many cases, both the suspect plane and the Peruvian attackers, as well as any confrontation between them, are fully visible by eye to the surveillance plane's crew. The reconnaissance plane is also in radio communication with the Peruvians.
According to ABWE aviation director Hank Scheltema, who spoke by telephone with James Bowers, a passenger on the flight, the missionaries were flying toward Iquitos when they noticed two other planes flying above and behind them.
"They just flew around, over and above, and never slowed up," Scheltema said Bowers told him. "One went from behind and began to fire." He said Bowers' wife, Veronica, 35, and daughter, Charity, were shot on the first pass and died instantly. Donaldson, the pilot, was struck in both legs on the second pass. The plane erupted in flames.
Donaldson managed to bring down the pontoon-equipped plane onto the Amazon River, where it bounced and then flipped over. Donaldson pulled himself out, and Bowers managed to unstrap his wife and daughter and pull them to a pontoon. He told his 7-year-old son, Cory, to jump into the water. Bowers' father-in-law said Bowers told him that the Peruvian plane continued to fire at them while they were in the water.
About 45 minutes later, local Peruvians rescued them in a dugout canoe and took them to the small, nearby city of Pebas. Jim and Veronica "Roni" Bowers were well known in Pebas, according to David Southwell, the missionary group's director for South America, because they had preached there and taught local schoolchildren.
Four hours after the group reached Pebas, Southwell said, a Peruvian Air Force Twin Otter, carrying American personnel, arrived and carried the Bowerses to Iquitos. Donaldson, whose leg was shattered, was taken to an Iquitos hospital today.
Southwell said Bowers was questioned last night by a Peruvian military official from Lima, in the presence of U.S. consular officials.
Bowers told him, Southwell said, that "there was no indication whatsoever that there was any warning given" by the Peruvians before the shootdown. "If there had been any warning given, I can guarantee you that our pilot would have landed. We have been operating for 14 years in aviation in that area of Peru and nothing like that has ever happened before."
The Baptist missionary association is one of a number of U.S. Christian evangelical groups operating in South America. Founded in 1927, it began operations in Peru in 1939. The missionaries specialize in work along the Amazon River and its tributaries, as well as along the Pacific coast.
The Bowers family, from Muskegon, Mich., had flown with Donaldson on Thursday from Iquitos to the far eastern corner of Peru, where the country borders Colombia and Brazil. Their purpose was to cross the border for documents for their newly adopted infant daughter at the Peruvian consulate in the Colombian border town of Leticia. They spent the night there and returned to their aircraft on Friday morning for the trip back to Iquitos.
The intelligence-sharing agreement between Peru, Colombia and the United States, was originally signed by former President Bush in the early 1990s during a time of rapid growth in Peru of cultivation of coca, the raw material of cocaine. The processed coca paste was being exported, often in small aircraft, to Colombia, where cartels turned it into cocaine powder for export to the United States.
Although efforts were made to stem coca cultivation on the ground in Peru, the government of then-President Alberto Fujimori agreed with U.S. government officials that air interdiction -- including Peruvian Air Force shootdowns -- was an effective way to combat the traffic.
Under the agreement, U.S. facilities on the ground and in the air were used to track possible illegal flights. U.S. officials viewed the program as a particularly valuable weapon against drug trafficking after the Colombian government in 1991 banned the extradition of drug kingpins to the United States.
But in May 1994, the Clinton administration suspended the program. Both the Pentagon and the Justice Department argued that any attack on civilian aircraft was illegal under international and U.S. laws and questioned whether U.S. cooperation with the shootdowns might jeopardize treaties on aviation safety.
Several Pentagon officials raised specific questions about the possibility that an innocent civilian aircraft -- even one in which U.S. citizens were traveling -- would be shot down by Peru or Colombia. The State Department, while acknowledging certain legal concerns, argued that some form of the intelligence arrangement could continue under the equivalent of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in which the United States could share tracking data but express its official disapproval of attacks in flight.
By mid-1994, however, as drug imports increased, Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate turned aside administration concern that the United States could be held liable if it aided attacks on civilian planes and insisted that the agreement be reinstated. The administration agreed, but insisted that new safeguards and procedures for aircraft identification be written into the accord to guard against mistaken shootdowns. The administration also sponsored legislation that exempts U.S. military personnel from prosecution in connection with shootdowns resulting from the intelligence agreements.
In recent years, U.S. counternarcotics officials have repeatedly hailed Peru for sharply decreasing coca cultivation in that country. The Bush administration's new budget request includes increased funds for anti-narcotics aid for Peru.
The Pentagon moved quickly yesterday to disassociate itself with the incident, and to note that the U.S. government aircraft involved was not operated by any of the five U.S. military services. Although the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command is authorized to use AWACS reconnaissance flights over the region, such flights are rare.
"It was not an operation we had control of," a Defense Department official said.
Faiola reported from Buenos Aires, DeYoung and Nakashima from Washington. Edward Walsh and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company