Drug War Inc.

An Alabama contractor’s ties to the downing of a plane of missioaries in Peru.

Jason Vest

In January 1998, five twin-engine Cessna Citation V jets owned by the Defense Department arrived at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base. Their landing was heralded by the local Montgomery Advertiser, which noted in a short but enthusiastic piece that the aircraft were part of a $10 million program the military had outsourced to a recently incorporated local contractor. 

According to the paper, the new company, Aviation Development Corporation, had been retained to test state-of-the-art airborne radar, forward-looking infrared, and signals intercept sensors – sensors that, according to a base spokesman, had broad applications for aerial law enforcement operations and military search-and-rescue missions. It wasn’t a stretch to conclude that the sensors-equipped aircraft were destined for Latin America, where a number of private military companies have spent the past decade flying a variety of anti-drug missions for the U.S. government. 

On April 20, 2001, a Peruvian air force jet shot down a small single-prop plane full of Baptist missionaries, killing Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter. The Baptist plane was not fingered by the Peruvians, but by what the Washington Post initially reported was a CIA surveillance aircraft – a Cessna Citation V, to be precise. Subsequent reports noted that the aircraft was in fact owned by the Defense Department, but operated by a crew of outside contractors who have gone unidentified – a perfect example if the lack of accountability due to the privatization of the drug war. 

An In These Times investigation has revealed that the contract aircrew is likely employed by Aviation Development Corporation, the same company that handled the Cessna surveillance tests in Alabama. All I’m going to say about who was flying that plane in Peru,” a Pentagon official told In These Times, is that you should look around Maxwell Air Force Base,” where ADC is based. 

No one answers ADC’s phone, and its president, Edward A. Lex” Thistlethwaite Jr., did not return messages left at his home. Despite having a listing in the Maxwell Air Force Base phone directory, spokesman Capt. Ken Hoffman was also unable to reach anyone from ADC. Nor was he able to find anyone at the base who knew anything about the company or the current location of the Cessna Citations. 

When Glenn Owen – whom Alabama records list as the company’s secretary – was reached at his home, he refused to answer any questions about ADC’s connections with the U.S. government or its Latin American operations. I’m not free to comment,” he said, refusing to elaborate. And I don’t see anyone getting back to you.” 

In the name of counter-narcotics, the U.S. government has been waging a private war in the Andes for years. While active-duty U.S. soldiers are allowed to train South American military units, under congressional mandate and Pentagon regulations, they’re not allowed to take part in combat, and limitations are placed on the number of personnel who can be in-country. (For example, Plan Colombia caps the number of active-duty soldiers in-country at 500.) 

However, the same restrictions do not apply to private military companies under contract with the U.S. government. While a State Department rule technically prohibits contractors from taking part in combat operations, the rule has been clearly violated, and a handful of contractors have been killed in combat operations. Three helicopter pilots employed by Virginia-based DynCorp were shot down and killed in Peru in 1992, and this past February, four DynCorp contractors” – all ex-Special Forces – ended up in a near-fatal firefight rescuing the crew of a helicopter downed by Colombian FARC rebels. 

Because these U.S. agents in Latin America are contractors, as opposed to actual servicemen, both their activities and their deaths attract little attention. This is hardly surprising given the notoriously opaque qualities intrinsic to private military companies, and very attractive to U.S. policy-makers who tremble at the thought of actual servicemen either being linked to local human rights violators or shipped home in coffins. 

Drug war critics have long argued that it’s time to reconsider this approach to overseas counter-narcotics operations. On April 25, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) introduced the Andean Region Contractor Accountability Act, a measure that calls for the U.S. government to cease using outsourced contractors as surrogates for American military and law enforcement elements in the Andes. 

The bill’s introduction came a day after Schakowsky and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia) sent a letter to President Bush asking him not only to cease aerial intelligence sharing with all the Andean countries, but to immediately suspend all contracts with private military firms and individuals for narcotics control and law enforcement services in the Andean region.” 

Holding that the Bowers incident was a direct result of U.S. drug policy, the duo added: The U.S. uses private military companies in its drug operations throughout Latin America, and they operate largely out of the public eye. Now that their operations have resulted in the deaths of two Americans, we believe it is time to take a closer look at the policy that permits this practice.” 

The most important thing the congresswoman is trying to say here is that our current drug interdiction policy has failed, and we need to re-examine our strategy in dealing with narcotics,” says Schakowsky spokesman Nadeam Elshami. We have to be clear – if we’re going to participate in these kinds of activities, taxpayers need to know. It should be our military that is participating, and not private companies given taxpayer money to do the military’s dirty work.” 

Though Virginia-based Military Professional Resources Inc. (whose dubious claim to fame is helping the Croatians plan the ethnic cleansing of the Serbian Krajina in 1994) has not renewed its contract in Colombia, airborne units from U.S.-based AirScan, East Inc. and DynCorp are all still active in the Andes. According to provisions of their contracts with the U.S. government, their operatives are forbidden from interacting with the press, though a few enterprising journalists have interviewed operatives who report that their aircraft routinely return home with bullet holes courtesy of narco-trafficking rebels. 

The Andean insurgents are not, however, the only ones in the region known for being trigger-happy. Over the years, a perennial problem for the United States has been the shoot first, ask questions later” mentality of Latin American military pilots, and, in the name of satiating zealous drug-war cheerleaders, the American agencies in the drug war have done everything they can to divest themselves of any responsibility for a mishap such as the Bowers incident. 

As far back as seven years ago, Washington knew its counternarcotics allies were a little too quick on the draw and, in May 1994, abruptly suspended sharing real-time intercept intelligence with the Colombians and Peruvians. Lawyers from the Justice, Defense and State departments concluded that furnishing foreign powers with intelligence used to shoot down unarmed civilian aircraft was a violation of a 1984 amendment to the International Convention on Civil Aviation. (That the amendment had been backed by the United States as a response to the Soviet downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 gave the issue a particularly poignant edge.)

Of greater concern was the lawyers’ conclusion that if U.S.-provided intelligence was used in the accidental downing of an innocent aircraft – something the Pentagon was seriously concerned about – U.S. personnel, at both the executive and operational level, would be in definite violation of the 1984 amendment, and, under its provisions, subject to criminal charges and even the death penalty. 

But upon appraisal of the freeze and the reasons for it, drug war boosters in both the administration and Congress went into fits of apoplexy and indignation, charging the Pentagon with undercutting an effective counter-drug program. Among those infuriated by the Pentagon move was New Jersey’s Robert Torricelli–then a Democratic representative, now a senator. At a June 22, 1994 House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing, Torricelli lambasted the Pentagon, calling it incredible” that a trifle like the legal vulnerabilities of U.S. government officials” would require a suspension of activity. In light of recent events, it’s worth revisiting one of Torricelli’s riffs on this point: 

The U.S. government tracks narco-traffickers bringing cocaine to the United States. That information is merely provided to the Peruvian or Colombian governments. They pass it to their own officials, who make their own judgments. Peruvian aircraft tracks a narco-trafficker, operating with no flight plan, often at night, with no lights. The plane is approached and [there’s an] attempt to communicate. There’s no response. They attempt on radio communications on multiple frequencies. There’s no response. There’s an effort to lead them to an airport for a forced landing. They refuse and attempt to evade. And then warning shots are fired. Do you seriously believe that there is a jury in America, of any combination of American citizens, anywhere, under those circumstances, that would find a liability for U.S. government officials? 

Given recent circumstances, the question is perhaps best posed to a suddenly widowed husband and father from Michigan. At the time, however, a beleaguered Robert Gelbard, then an assistant secretary of state, responded that the issue of balance between intelligence-sharing and compliance with the law was not an easy issue susceptible to a sound-bite solution.” Making the hearing even more surreal was the flip-flop of rationality between Torricelli and Gelbard. Gelbard maintained that the Peruvians and Colombians had not actually downed any planes using U.S. radar information. Torricelli, recently returned from an Andean junket, said that in private he had been told by Colombian and Peruvian officials that dozens of planes either had been forced or shot down by both governments. If they admit that they’re shooting down aircraft, you suspend cooperation and sharing information with them,” Torricelli said. Of course they’re going to [officially] tell you they’re not shooting down any aircraft.” 

Torricelli’s remarks reflected the wink and nod” view taken by drug warriors irked by legal restrictions on downing unarmed civilian aircraft. In the end, those drug warriors carried the day: The 1995 Defense Authorization Act included language that not only allows American military aircraft to take part in downing civilian planes, but relieves pilots from any responsibility should they be complicit in a wrongful shooting.

Since then, the United States has made sure its surveillance personnel are not part of the chain-of-command that shoots down planes over the Andes, and has expanded the use of private military contractors in an effort to maintain an arms-length approach in the regions. There are hopes that Schakowsky’s bill will prompt a serious inquiry not only into drug war orthodoxy, but this type of contractor use; according to her staffers, even some Republicans are warming to her proposed legislation. But she can expect a fight from the contractors, many of whom have profitable, longstanding ties to the defense and intelligence establishments, as well as the usual lot of craven politicians from both parties who perpetuate the mythology of a righteous drug war.

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Jason Vest, who specializes in national security issues, is a contributing editor at In These Times and is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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