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By Peter Gorman -- (Special to "From The Wilderness")

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. 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. By Sunday morning the US was changing its 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 or 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 and returning the following day.. Islandia is a tiny Peruvian city on the river border between Peru and Brazil.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 In the Feb issue of FTW he wrote a chilling account of the arrival in Iquitos of former Navy Seals to man gunboats along rivers bordering FARC controlled regions of Colombia]



* More Holes in Shootdown Story, Was DynCorp Involved? - ABC News Changes Web Site

FTW -- "It's bullshit! I was in Iquitos and I flew on those shootdown missions. Nobody, I mean nobody, shoots down anything unless the CIA says so." So says retired DEA Agent Celerino Castillo, a Bronze Star winner in Vietnam who served as a DEA Agent in Peru from 1982-4. Castillo, author of the book Powderburns (available at was emphatic about the US government's control of all military operations in the region. "In those days we flew on helicopters and the Peruvian soldiers would lean out the window with FN rifles and blast holes from above drug smugglers' planes. I was on those flights. Yes, the Peruvians did the shooting but it was always the US who gave the OK."

Asked for a possible explanation for the shootdown Castillo observed, "I think it all has to do with Plan Colombia and the coming war. It's going to crank into high gear very soon. I think that the CIA was sending a clear message to all non-combatants to clear out of the area and to get favorable press. It sounds like a bigger shooting war is going to erupt any minute. Iquitos is at the heart of everything the CIA is doing right now. They don't want any witnesses." Castillo, who risked his DEA career for exposing direct CIA involvement drug smuggling from the Ilopango airfield in El Salvador during the Contra war, now works as a substitute teacher in McAllen Texas. He can be contacted at

Even as the government line continues to lose credibility, a change in a story by Bill Reddeker of ABC Network news raises additional questions about the possible role of the giant military contracting corporation DynCorp in the shootdown. (Former CIA Director James Woolsey is a stockholder in the privately held corporation.) As repeatedly covered in FTW, DynCorp is the largest US government contractor in the region and has armed civilian personnel flying escort for Colombian military aircraft on coca eradication missions in Southern Colombia. These DynCorp operations are taking place in a region just miles from the location of the Bowers' shootdown. Last February FTW reported on a gun battle between a DynCorp helicopter and FARC guerillas after a Colombian military crew was shot down. But confusion remains as to whether DynCorp personnel had been contracted by the CIA to fly on the US surveillance plane which initiated the Bowers tragedy. A posting on the ABC news web site ( from April 22, 2001 at 6:30 PM EDT contained the statement, "According to senior administration officials, the Citation 5 surveillance plane used in the operation is owned by the Pentagon. Its crew was hired by the CIA from DynCorp, a private company. And the program is coordinated by the U.S. embassy in Peru. Dyncorp is involved in many aspects of Plan Colombia, a controversial, $1.3 billion American program to cripple drug production in South America."

Yet by April 24 a series of four stories on the shootdown contained an amended statement which now reads, "According to senior administration officials, the Citation-5 surveillance plane, the US aircraft flying with the Peruvian interceptor, is owned by the Pentagon. The CIA hired its crew, and the program is coordinated by the U.S. embassy in Peru." A search of the ABC News web site reveals that all references to DynCorp in this case have been removed. Contacted for comment, ABC Network News spokesman Jeff Schneider had not provided a response as of press time. DynCorp officials twice emphatically denied any involvement in the incident, either by company employees or any of their subcontractors. Contacted by FTW, the CIA refused to comment.

At press time an April 29 New York Post story and stories by The New York Times identify Alabama-based Aviation Development Corp. (ADC) as the supplier of the contract crew. ADC is privately held and may be a CIA proprietary company. Initial checks into Alabama Secretary of State filings for the corporation suggest that it may be a CIA proprietary operation (wholly owned) rather than a contracting company that derives income from other sources.

A crucial question that remains unanswered is where the CIA contract employees who initiated the tragedy came from. If they came from DynCorp, which has a demonstrable financial interest in continuing hostilities another motivating factor needs to be addressed by the Congress. Other Background - Chavez Caves In - Indications of escalating conflict in the region poured in throughout the month of April. On April 6, citing security concerns about terrorism, the U.S. closed its embassies Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay. On April 17 the State Department, citing continuing violence, issued a travel warning for all U.S. citizens in the region. On April 19 under pressure to protect Venezuelan interests at the pending FTAA summit in Quebec, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez relinquished his longstanding opposition to Plan Colombia. As reported by the AP, "At a news conference in Cartagena, Chavez, who has been the region's most blunt critic of the U.S.-backed strategy to drive rebels from Colombia's coca fields and give aid to poor coca farmers, said he had changed his mind about the plan. "'Where there were doubts about Plan Colombia, now there is clarity,' declared Chavez, who is seeking Venezuela's inclusion in the Andean Trade Preferences Act."

And on April 21, The Washington Post broke the story of a brutal massacre in the village of Naya by right-wing paramilitary forces in which as many as 80 villagers had been murdered with chain saws and machetes. This, as preparations for wider conflict continue.



FTW APRIL 25 - In the unsettled wake of the CIA connected shootdown of an unarmed plane carrying Baptist missionaries in Peru, Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) today introduced the Andean Region Contractor Accountability Act (ARCAA) that would prohibit the federal government from funding private armies in the Andean region. The bill specifically targets private contractors such as DynCorp which provide armed military support in the region while escaping Congressional oversight.

As reported in a press release from Schakowsky's office the bill would prohibit the US government from entering into contracts with private organizations or individuals "to carry out military, law enforcement, armed rescue, or other related operations [in the] Andean region."

Schakowsky stated, "The American taxpayers are funding a secret war that could suck us into a Vietnam-like conflict... Is [this outsourcing] to hide body bags from the media and thus shield them from public opinion?" The measure is co-sponsored by Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) and Jim McGovern (D-MA).

Mike Ruppert

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