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PERU: CIA, Military Trade Blame Over Missionary Plane Shootdown

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Feb 9 2010 (IPS) - Nine years after the 2001 shootdown of a small airplane carrying U.S. missionaries over the Peruvian jungle, the CIA and the armed forces of this South American country are pointing fingers at each other over who was responsible for the fatal mistake, which cost the lives of two people.

Missionary pilot Kevin Donaldson receiving first aid after crash-landing in the Amazon river.  Credit: Courtesy of La República

Missionary pilot Kevin Donaldson receiving first aid after crash-landing in the Amazon river. Credit: Courtesy of La República

The Cessna seaplane, flown by a veteran missionary pilot and carrying a family of missionaries, was shot down on Apr. 21, 2001 in the northern Peruvian Amazon region of Loreto as part of the Peruvian air force’s counter-narcotics strategy, which operated with support from the CIA (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency).

The case returned to the headlines this month in Peru and the U.S. after the ABC News television network aired a recently declassified CIA video that shows what happened that day – and which, according to the TV network, demonstrates the CIA’s shared responsibility for the tragedy.

Veronica Bowers and seven-month-old daughter Charity were killed in the incident, by a bullet that went through the mother’s back and into the baby’s skull. Veronica’s husband Jim Bowers and their six-year-old son Cory escaped serious injury. Although the pilot, Kevin Donaldson, was shot in both legs, he managed to crash-land the damaged seaplane on the Amazon river.

The missionaries belonged to the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, which is active in 65 countries.

The bungled operation led to the indefinite suspension of joint counterdrug operations in Peruvian air space.

The Peruvian pilot of the Tucano fighter jet that shot down the missionary aircraft was tried in both the civilian and military courts in Peru. During the prosecution, he spent a year in prison. And although he was acquitted, he had to flee the country for a time because his identity was revealed during the trial.

The leaking of the pilot’s identity exposed him to death threats apparently from drug gangs whose planes he had shot down in covert joint anti-drug operations between 1995 and 2001, air force sources told IPS.

Their comments were the first time the air force has spoken publicly about what happened to the Peruvian officers involved in the incident.

“Fifteen ‘narco planes’ were shot down in that period, and the pilot who was tried had the record. He had destroyed at least seven,” said one of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity and under the agreement that the names of the pilot and co-pilot would not be printed, “because their lives are still in danger, especially the pilot’s.”

The incident occurred during a covert drug interdiction operation carried out by the Peruvian air force with the support of a CIA surveillance plane under an anti-drug cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Peru.

When the CIA surveillance plane spotted a suspicious aircraft, it would provide “intelligence information” to the Peruvian pilots, who would seek contact with the crew to verify their identity.

If the Peruvian air force pilots received no response, they were required to warn the suspicious aircraft to land, and to give it time to do so. But they had orders to shoot if the warnings were not heeded or the aircraft attempted to escape.

On Feb. 3, the CIA Office of Public Affairs responded to the ABC News report that day on the shootdown. In the statement, the Agency said a “thorough review” by an “accountability board…concluded that no CIA officer acted inappropriately” in the incident. The investigation was ordered in 2007 by then CIA director Michael Hayden.

The communiqué further stated that “the programme to deny drug traffickers an ‘air bridge’ ended in 2001 and was run by a foreign government. CIA personnel had no authority either to direct or prohibit actions by that government. CIA officers did not shoot down any airplane. In the case of the tragic downing of April 21st, 2001, CIA personnel protested the identification of the missionary plane as a suspect drug trafficker.”

This week, the CIA announced that the investigation determined that 16 current and former officials of the Agency should be disciplined “for shortcomings in reporting and supervision” in connection with the shootdown.

But the declassified CIA transcript of the cockpit tape recording that picked up the conversation between the CIA operatives in the surveillance plane and the Peruvian pilots in the Tucano jet suggest that responsibility for the chain of errors that led to the tragic incident was shared.

The CIA surveillance plane had been shadowing the Cessna and alerted the Peruvian air force, which scrambled the fighter jet.

And although the CIA pilots asked their Peruvian colleagues to verify whether the Cessna was a drug-running plane, they did nothing to prevent the Tucano from opening fire on the small aircraft, which at no time attempted to flee.

Following is a partial transcript of the conversation:

CIA voice 1: We’re trying to remain covert at this point… but what we do know is: it’s a high-wing single engine float plane that we picked up, just along the border between Peru and Brazil. You know we can go up and attempt a tail number [as required by protocol], but the problem with that, if he is dirty and he detects us, he makes a right turn immediately and we can’t chase him.

CIA voice 2: See I don’t know if this is bandito or if it’s er, amigo, OK.

Peruvian Air Force liaison: OK.

CIA 2: So if poseeblay [possible, in Spanish], we get him to land in Iquitos and check.

Peruvian: OK.

CIA 2: OK, before rrrr [makes gun noise].

Peruvian: Yes yes.

Peruvian Air Force liaison: [In Spanish] Unidentified aircraft, you have been intercepted by Air Force jets for not having an authorised flight plan. Change course immediately to heading 270 and head for the Pucallpa airfield. If you do not obey, we will go ahead and shoot you down. (Donaldson did not receive the warning, because he was on another frequency.)

CIA 1: [In English] This guy doesn’t, this guy doesn’t fit the profile.

CIA 2: OK, I understand this is not our call, but this guy is at 4,500 feet. He is not taking any evasive action. I recommend we follow him. I do not recommend phase 3 [shootdown] at this time.

Peruvian voice: Is all is three phase… [inaudible] OK.

CIA 2: Are you sure it’s bandito, are you sure?

Peruvian voice: Yes. Totally sure, positive.

CIA 2: Ok ok, if you sure.

CIA 1: That is bull***t, I think we’re making a mistake.

CIA 2: I agree with you. There he is huh, OK the guy’s turning north now.

Peruvian voice: This is bandito, huh.

CIA 2: You sure?

Peruvian voice: Yeah.

Donaldson [to Iquitos control tower, in Spanish]: I’m at 4,000 feet. The military is here. I don’t know what they want.


CIA 1 [to Peruvian air force pilot]: The plane is talking to Iquitos toy…

Donaldson [In Spanish]: They’re killing me! They’re killing us!

CIA 1 [Says to ground contact]: Tell them to terminate, tell them to terminate.

CIA 2: No, don’t shoot!

Peruvian ground contact: No mas, no mas [no more, no more].

CIA 1: God.

Peruvian pilot [In Spanish] Roger, we’re terminating, he’s on fire.

Donaldson [In Spanish]: 1408, Iquitos do you copy do you copy? Iquitos Iquitos do you copy do you copy?

[Spanish voices, inaudible]

CIA 1: Is he gonna land right here? OK I got him. He’s over the river, he’s smoking, he’s smoking.

CIA 2: Yeah, he’s smoking

CIA 1: If we can get one over here to save this guy…

After the Cessna crash-landed in the river, the wounded pilot and Bowers and his son held onto the pontoons in the overturned plane for around 45 minutes before local villagers came to their rescue in a canoe.

According to the Peruvian air force sources who spoke to IPS, the pilot made a mistake because he believed he had received an ok from the CIA operatives to open fire on the Cessna.

“There was a trial in Peru and the men who were allegedly responsible were exonerated. But in the United States, the CIA agents have faced no prosecution,” said one of the sources.

“This was a joint operation, which means there should be trials in both countries. But the ‘norteamericanos’ [Americans] say they didn’t make any mistake. That’s amazing,” the source added.

“The Orion [CIA surveillance plane] guided the Tucano to the missionary plane, but the ‘norteamericanos’ didn’t speak Spanish well and the Peruvians didn’t speak English well, which caused the confusion,” said the source.

“The Tucano would not have attacked the seaplane without the participation of the CIA’s Orion. They can’t say they are not responsible.”

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