No One Gets Away Clean

| May 03, 2001

Last Friday, Veronica Bowers, 35, and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, were killed when a Peruvian Air Force plane fired on the Cessna 185 they were flying into Peru's Amazonian interior. Her husband James and her son Cory survived the crash landing and were rescued from the river by Peruvian campesinos. The incident has drawn national attention because the Bowers were American citizens killed by a foreign military, and because they were missionaries.

What happened? An American surveillance plane mistakenly believed that the Bowers's plane might be carrying drugs. They relayed this information to the Peruvian Air Force, which then shot the plane down. There's some controversy as to whether or not the Air Force ordered the plane to land before shooting it down. But there's no controversy about the fact that Peru regularly -- at least 30 times since 1995 -- shoots down civilian planes suspected of carrying drugs. And they do this with the United States's knowledge and, arguably, with its blessing. It's not for nothing that Peru has been hailed as a model for its cooperation in the war against drugs.

As the tagline for last year's best film, Traffic, tells us, in the war against drugs, "no one gets away clean." What happened April 20 wasn't an exception. We Americans can, as President Bush did, call what happened to "Roni" Bowers a "tragic mistake" and take some comfort in the knowledge that the military action that killed her "was not an operation we had control of." But none of this changes the fact that Bowers was a victim of the war against drugs -- that she died as a result of our anxiety about the impact of drugs on our society, and the means we have chosen to address those concerns.

According to the Washington Post, American officials have long had misgivings about the Peruvian government's willingness to shoot down civilian aircraft as part of its interdiction efforts. These concerns led the United States to suspend active cooperation with Peru for a while. Then in 1994, as part of one of our regularly scheduled frenzies over drugs, we resumed cooperation, adopting rules of engagement to allay our concerns.

But a check-off list isn't the same as moral certainty. That's why the Post wrote that the United States had, in effect, a "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding what Peru did with the information we gave them. Doubtless this willingness to look the other way was made easier by the fact that those who would die would be what, in another time and imperium, would have been called "wogs." The problem is, Bowers wasn't a wog; she was one of us, and now we're forced to look at what's being done in our name.

And not just in our name, but also because of our hypocrisy. It is only American arrogance, reinforced by repeatedly telling ourselves that we are the "sole remaining superpower," that allows us to presume to give the rest of the world a grade for its cooperation in the war on drugs while neglecting to grade our own efforts to reduce demand at home. Every year, such nations as Colombia and Mexico must endure the humiliation of being certified as "cooperating" in the gringo war on drugs. In the meanwhile, Colombia is on the verge of falling apart thanks to a civil war financed in large measure by El Norte's appetite for drugs. And in Mexico, judges, prosecutors, and police are dying in the fight against cartels whose markets are not in the D.F. or Monterrey, but Los Angeles and Kansas City.

Our drug laws have become more draconian, but this, paradoxically, proves my point. Americans convicted of drug offenses are serving longer sentences. But these offenses involve the sale and distribution of drugs, not their consumption. There's very little political support for increasing criminal penalties for possession. Why? Partly because of civil liberties, and partly because the prospect of giving millions of middle-class Americans a rap sheet is not something our leaders relish.

It was the unwillingness to assign moral culpability for our drug problems that, just as much as the Peruvian Air Force, killed Roni Bowers and her daughter. We haven't got the stomach -- or the imagination -- to really attack demand, so, like someone desperate to change the subject, we go on and on about the supply side -- secure in the belief that the casualties of our policy are folks ordinary Americans can't relate to.

Tragically, Roni and Charity Bowers were there when our luck ran out. I suspect that our cooperation with Peru will be put on hold. I also suspect that, within a few months or a year, we'll announce new and improved rules of engagement that will allow us to actively assist the Peruvian military in its efforts to protect us from our own appetites, and spare us the need to just say no.

Roberto Rivera writes for Breakpoint.org

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