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Running a fool's errand in Latin America

Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Wherever the culpability lies in this incident, the larger issue is whether the U.S. strategy to use military interdiction in Peru, Colombia and other Andean nations - while demand for cocaine still flourishes in America - amounts to a fool's errand.

The following editorial appeared in Tuesday's Chicago Tribune:

The events surrounding the tragic downing of a missionary plane over Peru last week were under review Monday by U.S. and Peruvian authorities involved in the incident. But one overwhelming picture is already clear. Given U.S.-led counternarcotics strategy in the region since 1994 - including U.S.-Peruvian cooperative missions to halt cocaine trafficking by air - this kind of tragedy was bound to happen.

The deaths of American Baptist missionary Veronica Bowers, 35, and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, are unconscionable. That CIA-hired operatives aboard a surveillance plane misidentified their small Cessna aircraft as a possible drug-smuggling flight was bad enough. The fact the CIA operatives tried to persuade a Peruvian fighter jet to make a positive identification before shooting at the missionary plane is small comfort. A mother and child are dead.

Wherever the culpability lies in this incident, the larger issue is whether the U.S. strategy to use military interdiction in Peru, Colombia and other Andean nations - while demand for cocaine still flourishes in America - amounts to a fool's errand. The question is whether the United States is being slowly sucked into local armed conflicts by concentrating on military efforts against drugs.

President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came into office talking wisely about the need to curb demand in the United States rather than to wage feckless war on foreign drug traffickers. The Bush administration, though, has yet to pull back from such risky policies.

The United States is still pursuing its $1.3 billion Plan Colombia, a two-year military effort to eradicate cocaine production while cracking down on rebels using drugs to finance their war on the government. Congress is considering an administration request for an additional $700 million for next year for the Andean region, including $400 million to Colombia and the remainder to other nations, including Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

The Peruvian air force has shot down, forced down or strafed more than 30 aircraft since March 1995, while seizing a dozen more on the ground. The Peru incident should set off alarms in the Bush administration about what could eventually happen in Colombia as the United States becomes more involved with intelligence and logistical support for nations using their armies to crack down on drug traffickers.

Bush has suspended American flights in support of Peru's drug interdiction efforts while the investigation continues. This is an opportunity to rethink the whole strategy. Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has fled the country and new presidential elections will be held soon pitting Alejandro Toledo, the front-runner, against former Peruvian President Alan Garcia, who recently returned from voluntary exile and is gaining quickly in the polls.

As president, Garcia confronted the United States on economic policy while quietly collaborating on anti-drug programs. He presided over hyperinflation, made a failed attempt to nationalize banks and unilaterally limited debt payments.

Now he may become the Bush administration's new best friend in the fight against drugs.

Mr. President, there's one more reason to rethink counternarcotics strategy.



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