Research: Commentary

Testimony of Adam Isacson, Hearing of the Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee on "US Air Interdiction Efforts in South America After the Peru Incident"

May 1, 2001 | Testimony

By Adam Isacson

Testimony of Adam Isacson, Senior Associate, Center for International Policy
Before the House Government Reform Committee, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources
May 1, 2001

Chairman Souder and members of the subcommittee, it is a pleasure to appear before you today to testify about this important issue. Thank you for inviting me to participate.

For five years I have coordinated a program at the Center for International Policy that monitors the United States' relationship with the militaries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Even though this relationship has strong implications for human rights, democratization, and all of our relations with the hemisphere, it gets little oversight and it's often difficult to get information about current policies and strategies.

The U.S. military relationship with the region includes arms transfers, training of over 13,000 Latin American military and police each year, exercises and exchanges, bases, hundreds of deployments of U.S. personnel, and a wide variety of engagement activities.

I have to admit that among all these activities, the "air bridge denial" program in Colombia and Peru was not getting much of our attention. This program was going after the criminals high up on the drug-production chain, not the peasants growing coca just to survive. It carried little risk of sucking us into an armed conflict, like our current strategy on the ground in Colombia. There was little risk of massive human rights violations - or so we thought, because we'd been assured that strict rules of engagement were in place. Besides, the GAO reported in late 1999 that "there has been little or no U.S. airborne intelligence or surveillance of air traffic routes between Peru and Colombia since 1997."

So I was shocked and dismayed when I turned on the news a week and a half ago and saw what was done to innocent civilians in the area. I wish now that we had investigated this policy more, explored the risks more closely, and tried to increase transparency over the way it was being carried out. We could have had a debate about the shootdown policy's merits a long time ago.

One thing that has disturbed me during the last week and a half is the United States government's rush to blame Peru for the incident, washing its hands of responsibility. The details might reveal that U.S. personnel objected strenuously to the use of deadly force that day. But the United States nonetheless shares the blame. While a Peruvian pilot pulled the trigger, he pulled the trigger of a gun provided by the United States while flying a plane provided by the United States. He was trained in these operations by the United States. And he was alerted to his target by intelligence provided by the United States.

And Peru was following a policy put in place by the United States. Over the years, the United States has given Peru strong incentives to pursue its shootdown policy with extreme zeal. Peru was rewarded handsomely for carrying it out. Peru's military received aid, base upgrades, and - perhaps just as important - political support. During the yearly drug certification process, U.S. officials and documents always hold up the shootdowns as a shining example of successful cooperation with the United States. U.S. officials always mentioned the Peruvians' success not just at hearings like this one, but in public appearances with officials in Peru, repeating the number of planes shot down like a wartime body count. Colombia has been urged to follow suit; I have heard U.S. officials disparage Colombia's tendency to force planes down and strafe them on the ground because it lets the traffickers get away.

The risks

Accidental shootdowns are only one of the risks that this policy carries. What we're doing in the Andes is risky and deserves a lot more scrutiny than it's getting.

Democracy

First, our single-minded focus on drugs can severely distort these countries' political development. Peru is a perfect example. The United States worked very closely with the Alberto Fujimori regime in Peru simply because it was a loyal partner in supply reduction efforts. Open shows of U.S. support and muted criticism of abuses created a lot of political space for President Fujimori and his sinister intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos. If they had not been shooting down planes so enthusiastically, Fujimori would have become a Japanese citizen and Montesinos a fugitive a long time ago.

As the Washington Post reported two days ago, "The agreement that established U.S. cooperation with the Peruvian government was negotiated directly with Vladimiro Montesinos." The same Montesinos who cracked down on Peru's free press, who spied on congresspeople, civic leaders, human rights activists and opposition parties, and who helped fill jails with political prisoners while enriching himself enormously. The same Montesinos who worked throughout the 1980s as a lawyer defending large narcotraffickers.

"Montesinos used the [drug interdiction] agreement as a political weapon," the Post reports. "He occasionally threatened to suspend the partnership when it appeared the U.S. government was putting too much pressure on Fujimori's authoritarian government." Even when Fujimori stole an election outright, the United States' criticism was surprisingly muted. The U.S. even attended Fujimori's inauguration last July.

Merely because Peru's leaders cooperated with our anti-drug efforts, the United States government swallowed hard, quieted its criticism and worked with them. We ignored what should be a basic rule of counter-drug strategy: that if a partner nation is flouting the rule of law, then it is not going to be a reliable partner no matter how many planes they shoot down or bases they allow us to use. By offering political support to Fujimori and Montesinos, we were reinforcing the impunity that made the Peruvian military such a questionable anti-drug partner. We should have been pressing to end this impunity.

Corruption

This climate of impunity fosters corruption, a second policy risk. Again, we need look no further than Peru, where last month we saw the arrest of Gen. Nicolás Hermoza, who headed the armed forces from 1992 to 1998. Gen. Hermoza is being charged with aiding and abetting drug traffickers, and he reportedly has $14.5 million dollars in Swiss bank accounts. The Washington Post also told us the other day that over the past few years, "U.S. officials repeatedly have uncovered evidence of Peruvian pilots and military officers conspiring with drug traffickers." This reminds me of the celebrated case of Gen. Gutiérrez Rebollo in Mexico, the "drug czar" who it turns out was cooperating with our efforts against one drug cartel while helping another cartel. To what extent has the United States been unwittingly helping corrupt officials in other countries bust one cartel while strengthening another?

Beyond corruption, warning signs about the reliability of Peru's military have long been evident for anyone willing to look. The Peruvian armed forces' respect for democratic rule has been questionable at best, and it has serious problems with corruption and human rights abuse. For years, Peru's generals have been above the law. Why, then, should we be surprised when they violate aircraft interdiction procedures?

Military roles

Third, our anti-drug cooperation in South America is encouraging militaries to take on roles that would be illegal for our own military to perform in the United States. Drug interdiction is an internal law-enforcement role that requires frequent contact with civilians. Here in America, our military is focused on external threats to national security. In much of Latin America, militaries have played internal roles, focused on internal enemies, with devastating consequences for human rights and civil-military relations. In much of the region, the post-cold-war period has been a time for building democracy, and one of the most difficult steps has been to get the military back in the barracks. These new counter-drug roles give the regions' armies a powerful reason to remain outside the barracks.

Oversight

Fourth, U.S. anti-drug activities in the region are being carried out in a way that avoids scrutiny and oversight. While some secrecy is needed to protect U.S. personnel and to keep from alerting traffickers, we need more information in order to gauge the policy's effectiveness, to be more alerted to the risks involved, to guarantee an informed debate, and - let's face it - to prevent incidents like last Friday's shootdown from occurring again in the future.

Right now, we cannot say with confidence how much the United States is spending on its interdiction program in the Andes. We don't know how many U.S. military personnel and contractors are working in the region. We do know, however, that the U.S. military presence goes well beyond what most Americans would imagine. I have included a map in my written testimony indicating the locations of radar sites, forward operating locations, air facilities, training locations, and other sites in the region. I'm sure it's incomplete. But it's remarkable how spread out our forces are - including some sites where illegal armed groups are quite active - with little public discussion or knowledge.

And this is the U.S. involvement we know about. There are entire agencies whose operations are obscured by an informational black hole. The fact is, U.S. citizens can't get information about what their government is doing in a key nearby part of the world.

Contractors

Another informational void surrounds what appears to be a large and rapidly growing role played by private contractors. Contractors were involved in the Peru incident, but this phenomenon has gotten more attention in Colombia. There, at least six private U.S. corporations are performing services that include flying drug-crop fumigation aircraft, ferrying battalions into combat, serving as mechanics and logistics personnel, performing bottom-up reviews of the armed forces, and gathering aerial intelligence. Some of these are rather delicate missions. In Colombia, three spray-plane pilots have died in crashes since 1997, and in February of this year, contractor personnel working for the Virginia company DynCorp found themselves in a firefight with FARC guerrillas while performing a search and rescue mission in Caquetá department.

Again, little more is known about the contractors: the names of companies, other roles they may be playing, how much U.S. money is going to them, why they are being used instead of U.S. government or host-country personnel, and to what extent their lives are in danger.

Are contractors taking on missions that are considered too dangerous for U.S. personnel? Are they getting too close to participating in shooting wars in other countries? Are they bound by the same human rights standards that apply to military aid in the foreign aid budget? Are they consistently operating in line with U.S. policy goals? Who is making sure?

These are very serious questions, but I can't come close to answering them because contractor operations are taking place with almost no transparency. There is no annual report to Congress on contractor activities, and even some good investigative reporters have been able to uncover little.

This leads to a lack of effective oversight over contractors. Lack of effective oversight leads to bizarre policy choices and incomprehensible decisions - such as including non-Spanish speakers on surveillance planes in Peru.

Means and ends

Beyond all of these risks, perhaps the most tragic thing about the current policy is that the ends don't even justify the chosen means. We hear all the time about how air bridge denial has reduced coca cultivation in Peru and Bolivia. But the gross amount of coca grown in the Andes hasn't budged at all - coca cultivation in Colombia has made up the difference, and Colombia has lots of room to grow. Meanwhile, street prices and purities in the United States haven't been affected at all.

The shootdown policy has succeeded only in inconveniencing drug traffickers, forcing them to use routes other than air to get their product out. We haven't found anything approaching a defense against short-hop transshipment flights, the use of rivers and, increasingly, transport via oceans.

Moving coca cultivation elsewhere and forcing traffickers to use other shipment methods are not policy successes. And they certainly don't justify a large military presence, a risky shootdown policy, and being forced to work with corrupt and abusive governments.

Recommendations

Let's hope that the April 20 incident in Peru signals the beginning of a change in our policy. There are many new directions we must urgently take.

First, nobody thinks that narcotraffickers have a right to fly illegal drugs around at will. But the shootdown policy can be less aggressive without sacrificing much effectiveness. Since the policy already skirts the edges of international law and ignores due process, it makes sense to err on the side of caution. Lets hope new rules of engagement reflect this in the future. The United States should also play a more active role in discouraging questionable decisions to fire upon aircraft.

Some might argue that a less aggressive shootdown policy might allow more drugs to travel by air. If that happens, though, our experience so far would indicate that less drugs will travel by water or land as a result.

Second, we need to put some limits on our use of contractors. This trend appears to be going too far. Congresswoman Schakowsky has the right idea with her recently introduced bill to cut funding for contractors working with security forces in the Andean Ridge. I hope that the bill inspires a lot of debate and questioning about the contractors, because Congress needs to take a good, long look at this.

Third, let's be more careful about our choice of drug-war partners in the region. We need to develop stricter standards to govern who we're working with, what we're giving them, what we're training them to do, and how we're empowering them in their own countries. A zealous drug-war ally who ignores the rule of law at home is not likely to be an ally for very long. Sacrificing democratization and human rights for short-term drug goals threatens these same goals later on.

Fourth, it's been said a million times but we need to focus more on reducing demand at home. I'm sure you've all heard about the 1994 RAND Corporation study that found a dollar spent on drug treatment to be as effective as 23 dollars spent on source-zone interdiction. We need to make it easier for our addicts at home to get off drugs. There has been a little progress - treatment funding has risen 41 percent since 1994. But overseas interdiction funding rose by 175 percent in the same period.

Finally, we need to pay more attention to the reasons why poor people in the Andes produce drugs in the first place. In almost all cases, peasants produce coca or poppy because they have no other economic choices. They've come to a place where land is available, but their government never followed them, building roads and maintaining the rule of law. In Putumayo or the Huallaga Valley, you cannot break even with legal crops. We have to address this with infrastructure-building, state strengthening and alternative development programs that are agreed with local communities. If we keep on fumigating without improving conditions, drug crops will keep moving around. There's a lot of places for them to move to in the Amazon basin.

We can only resolve our drug crisis when we make it easier to get off drugs at home and make it easier to make a legal living in Latin America. These are not dramatic solutions offering quick results. But unlike the current policy, they will offer results eventually. The political cost not as high as one might think. Emphasizing treatment and economic development isn't "soft on drugs." The biggest challenge will be forcing some agencies to endure reduced budgets.

I echo many observers' sentiment that a military response is inadequate to drugs, which are a social and economic problem. I repeat the warning of Caspar Weinberger, who wrote thirteen years ago that using military force against drugs makes for "hot and exciting rhetoric, but would make for terrible national security policy, poor politics and guaranteed failure in the campaign against drugs."

I hope that last week's terrible tragedy may wake us up and start a re-evaluation. I look forward to your questions.

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