When a small plane carrying US missionaries was shot down a few weeks ago in Peru, killing a young woman and her seven-month-old baby girl, it first seemed to be a tragic case of trigger-happy policing by the Peruvian air force.
But as more details emerge from the Andean jungle, it is clear this apparently isolated incident has a far greater significance. The deaths have helped yank the covers from the secret side of America's billion-dollar drug war in Latin America.
The missionaries' plane was shot down by a Peruvian military pilot, but it was first spotted and targeted by a US Cessna Citation surveillance plane patrolling the air routes between Peru and Colombia on the look out for cocaine traffickers.
The surveillance plane was piloted not by US military pilots but by private contractors who, according to US congressional officials, were hired by an Alabama-based company called Aviation Development Corporation (ADC). In the words of one outraged official: "There were just businessmen in that plane. They were accountable to no one but their bottom line."
A state department inquiry is still taking place into the deaths of Veronica and Charity Bowers, the victims of the April 20 shootdown. Administration sources quoted in the US press suggested that the American Cessna crew cautioned their Peruvian air force counterparts against shooting the plane down, but no one is denying it was the Cessna that wrongly identified the missionaries' plane as suspect.
Moreover, the involvement of a US firm operating for profit over the Peruvian and Colombian jungles has drawn attention to an important but little-noticed trend - the privatisation of the drug war.
Congress is now trying to investigate the role of the commercial contractors and two bills have been proposed to try to curb their influence. Their chances of success in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are unclear, but their sponsors are determined to force the administration to at least explain its actions.
"We are hiring a private army," Janice Schakowsky, a Democratic congresswoman who authored one of the bills, told the Guardian. "We are engaging in a secret war, and the American people need to be told why."
A private corporation based in Virginia called DynCorp carries out much of the aerial spraying of coca plantations in Colombia. When a police helicopter was shot down in February by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, DynCorp sent in its own armed security men, in a search-and-rescue helicopter, who exchanged fire with the rebels and brought the policemen to safety. DynCorp pilots also ferry Colombian troops in and out of battle, and train Colombian helicopter and fixed-wing pilots.
Another US company, AirScan, based in Florida, works alongside ADC carrying out aerial surveillance in Colombia, using state-of-the-art imaging to pinpoint coca fields and guerrillas trying to bomb the Cano Limon oil pipeline.
Meanwhile, Military Professional Resources Inc, another Virginia-based consultancy group set up by former generals, has carried out officer training for the Colombian police and army.
The rise of the private contractor is arguably an inevitable outcome of US anti-drug policy under Bill Clinton and now President Bush. Last year, Congress approved $1.3bn expenditure on Plan Colombia, an ambitious programme of military aid to Bogota to try to stem the flow of drugs at the supply end.
But, concerned that Colombia could become a Vietnam-like quagmire, Congress imposed a cap on official US military involvement of 500 trainers and advisers. Into the gaping and lucrative gap stepped US commercial enterprise.
Richard White, a former ambassador to El Salvador, sees the trend towards privatisation as a symptom of Washington's failure to come to terms with its own military-based anti-drug strategy.
Mr White, now head of the Centre for International Policy, said: "I believe it's dishonourable for the US to resort to mercenaries to carry out its policy. If we are committed to intervening in Colombia in pursuit of US interests, then we should mobilise whatever military resources we need to accomplish this."
This is not the first time the US has resorted to mercenaries. The exploits of the pilots who flew in south-east Asia for the CIA front company, Air America, are legendary. As today in Colombia and Peru, Air America provided Washington with distance and deniability. But it was a CIA-run operation. Today's mercenaries in the drug war are provided by private companies selling a service and are used as a matter of course by both the state and defence.
In the Vietnam days, secrecy was justified by national security. In the current drug war, it is a matter of corporate confidentiality. Janet Wineriter, a spokeswoman at DynCorp's headquarters in Reston, near Washington's Dulles airport, said she could not discuss DynCorp's operations in Colombia because of its contractual obligations to its client, the state department.
Scott Harris, the spokesman for the state department's bureau for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said he could not comment because of the contractor's right to privacy.
Similarly, ADC diverts inquiries to its Alabama lawyer, Mike Waters, who refused comment on grounds of "normal client confidentiality".
Lynis Cox, a civilian public affairs officer at Maxwell air force base, from where ADC has operated since 1998, said: "I know they have a hangar out there on the base, but no one here seems to know much about them."
In Bogota, government officials are also tight-lipped about the increasingly unpopular privatisation of the conflict. A helicopter pilot in the Colombian anti-narcotics police said: "From Bush down, they want to cover up what they're doing. Not even the president wants to talk about private companies flying fumigation missions here in Colombia."
Members of US Congress are having similar problems getting information. Ms Schakowsky said the house sub-committee on government reform was being stonewalled by the state department and other federal agencies over the role of private contractors. "The CIA did not even show up," she said. "Why is this classified if taxpayers' money is being spent?"
A copy of DynCorp's five-year, $200m contract obtained by the Guardian is vague, with little about its rules of engagement. Under the heading "Search and Rescue", for example, it stipulates only: "This operation deals with downed aircraft or hostile action by narcotics producers or traffickers."
Major Andy Messing, who served as a US adviser in El Salvador and worked as a military consultant in Colombia, warned: "If there had been a US air force pilot in that plane in Peru, you can bet the Peruvians would have listened to him. The private guys have no authority. They are all potential hostages."
Three years ago a paper written at the Army War College by a Colonel Bruce Grant warned: "Foreign policy is [being] made by default [by] private military consultants motivated by bottom-line profits." Now, Major Messing argues, the warning is coming true: "DynCorp's guys are old geezers who've retired, and they're down there making $109,000 tax-free.
"Every time you have contractors this is what happens. They just prolong the whole mess."
The firms fighting America's drug war
Based Reston, Virginia
Description A huge corporation that supplies electronics and a range of contract services to the US government, which provides most of DynCorp's $1.4bn in business. It is also under scrutiny for its role in training US members of the UN police force in Bosnia
Role in drug war It has a five-year, $200m contract to provide crop-dusting pilots for eradication of coca plantations and helicopter pilots to ferry Colombian troops and DynCorp's own "security" personnel
Aviation Development Corporation
Based Maxwell air force base, Alabama
Description A secretive company set up in 1998 to test aerial electronic sensors
Role in drug war It flies Cessna spotter planes for the CIA in Peru and possibly Colombia to help target aircraft used by drug smugglers
Based Rockledge, Florida
Description Provides state-of-the-art air surveillance, also used in Angola
Role in the drug war Patrols the Colombian jungle in Cessna Skymaster electronic surveillance planes, seeking out coca plantations and guerrilla threats to the Cano Limon oil pipeline
Military Professional Resources Inc
Based Alexandria, Virginia
Description A consultancy set up by former US generals. Its biggest previous mission was the training of the Croatian army before its successful 1995 offensive against the Serbs
Role in drug war It has just completed a $6m year-long contract providing a 14-man training team for Colombian army and police officers. The effectiveness of the training was questioned by Bogota
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001