Civilian Pilots Shun Peru's Amazon

Civilian Pilots Shun Peru's Amazon
Posted by FoM on April 28, 2001 at 08:39:15 PT
By The Associated Press
Source: New York Times
Erik Avila was flying his single-engine Cessna with five passengers over the Amazon jungle when a Peruvian air force jet swooped alongside and hailed him by radio, demanding he identify himself.When his microphone failed, he made frantic hand signals to the fighter pilot and held up the broken handset to show he could not answer. He feared that under a U.S.-Peruvian program to force down suspected drug flights, his air-taxi could be shot from the sky.
``It has become a no man's land, where only the armed forces knows what is going on,'' said Avila, a private Peruvian jungle pilot with 14 years experience who flies out of the Amazon capital of Iquitos, 625 miles northeast of Lima.After the deadly downing of a U.S. missionary plane by a Peruvian air force jet whose crew thought it was carrying drugs, civilian pilots in Peru's drug-producing Amazon region want more controls on fighter pilots they say operate with impunity.Missionary Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter were killed in the April 20 attack. Her husband and their 6-year-old son, Cory, survived, as did pilot Kevin Donaldson, who underwent surgery on both legs.U.S. officials say an American surveillance crew urged the military craft not to open fire because of evidence suggesting it was not smuggling drugs, but it shot the small plane down anyway.Avila was luckier. After his frantic signaling, the fighter waggled its wings in a signal to follow and led his Cessna to a nearby military base.His plane was allowed to leave after its flight plan and cargo were checked, but the harrowing experience stuck with him. Avila was intercepted twice in the past five years. It hasn't happened to him recently, but he said interceptions continue despite a sharp drop in drug flights.Until last year, much of the Amazon region was under martial law to help the military fight leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers. ``Civilians had no rights,'' Avila said.Pilots say that while martial law has been lifted, many of the same attitudes remain.An American pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he has been intercepted three times in the past five years. The pilot, who said he feared losing his charter business in Peru if he were named, said he now flies with a ham radio. If tracked by military flights, he can contact co-workers at his base who can alert air traffic controllers.The pilots say that there are now just four small charter planes offering flights out of Iquitos, compared with at least 70 in 1995. They typically fly a handful of locals or hardy tourists to remote locations. Peru's national airlines fly only to large Amazon cities like Iquitos and are not bothered by drug-interception flights.Avila attributed the sharp drop in charter flights to fear, a decline in the economy and the seizure of suspected drug planes.But Peruvian officials defend the program, which they say has helped reduce production of coca -- the main ingredient in cocaine -- in Peru by almost three quarters since 1992.Mario Justo, director of Iquitos' airport, says the rights of small planes had been respected until the latest shoot-down``Civil aviation never had a problem. The high percentage of flights detected were illegal. It was a very successful system. There probably was a problem with the system this time, but this is being investigated,'' Justo said.The joint U.S.-Peruvian program was launched in 1992 when Peru was still the world's largest coca grower. Much of the coca that was flown in small planes over the jungle to Colombia in what was known as the drug ``air bridge'' ended up in the United States.Under the program, U.S. AWAC surveillance planes fly over drug-producing regions. When a radar plane locates a suspicious flight, it radios for a Citation -- a smaller U.S. plane that can fly low -- which then observes the target visually.A bilingual Peruvian representative on board communicates the radar and visual data collected to Peru's air force. The Peruvian pilot then verifies the suspect plane's registration, uses hand signals or radio messages to make contact, and can rock the jet's wings as a sign for the suspect plane to land. He may fire warning shots if needed, according to the pact.If there is still no response, it can shoot or force the suspect flight down. U.S. planes are barred from taking direct action against the suspicious flights.Since 1995, Peruvian jets have forced down or shot down 30 planes, and until now all were drug smugglers, U.S. and Peruvian officials say. There had been no reports of mistakes in Peru's media before last week, but the area is remote and largely controlled by Peru's military, making verification difficult.Colombia is the only other country with a program in which U.S. authorities pass information on to a local air force with a shoot-down policy. Colombian authorities say they have had no deadly errors.The United States suspended both programs pending an investigation into the downing of the missionaries' plane.Survivors say the Peruvian jet riddled the pontoon plane with bullets without warning, a charge disputed by Peruvian officials.``Sounds like a bunch of hot shot pilots,'' Jim Bowers' brother Phil, a trained pilot, said last week. ``Why didn't they call and check the registration?''Source: New York Times (NY) Published: April 28, 2001Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company Contact: letters Website: Forum: Related Articles:A War Against Ourselves Over The Andes - Salon.com 
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Comment #3 posted by meagain on April 29, 2001 at 08:47:28 PT
THis is wrong
The united nations should stop this abuse of our the peoples rights
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Comment #2 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on April 28, 2001 at 11:39:44 PT:
It Could Have Been Me
Imprint has done a very good job articulating my views.Back in 1994 and 1995, I was flying around the Amazon in these same small planes. I could have been shot down just as easily as the Bowers. I was merely lucky.The end results of misguided Amerikan policy are then:1) A body blow to any access to air travel, medical supplies, or research in the Amazon.2) A loss of tourist and research dollars.3) More misery for an impoverished country.Sounds worthwhile to me. Let's all bow to Uncle Sam.
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Comment #1 posted by Imprint on April 28, 2001 at 11:01:10 PT:
This is what bothers me. It has been said over and over that prohibition creates corruption on both sides. This article points out that the Peruvian Airforce pilots “operate with impunity”. This means to me that they do what they want; no law to govern them. This is exactly how our own US Police operate; they have complete impunity. We no longer have control of our own police force. US police can bust in to anyone’s house for any reason, they can pull you over in your car for any reason. If questioned, they simple twist and site laws and regulations to create a vial of validity. This article also points out that there has been a “sharp drop in charter flights”. The antis would say that the Peruvian Airforce has been successful. The truth is stated in the article; “fear, a decline in the economy and the seizure of suspected drug planes”.  The Peruvian government is creating fear in its citizens and guests, has come close to destroying the charter industry in its own country, all of which has assisted in a decline in the economy. Finally, it has been pointed out in almost every article about this story that 30 planes have been shot down that had illegal drugs on them. But, I haven’t seen a single statistic on how many planes have been detained (the one mentioned in this article can’t be the only one) or confiscated that didn’t have any drugs on them at all. I haven’t seen a single article that gives cost vs. benefit to this military program. The cost to the US and Peruvian governments must be staggering compared the benefits. 
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