p o l i c y b
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U.S. Drug Policy & Intelligence Operations in the Andes
by Michael L. Evans | June 2001
This brief was commissioned and originally distributed
by the IRC’s Foreign Policy
in Focus (FPIF) project. It is reproduced here courtesy of FPIF. Foreign
Policy in Focus—A Think Tank Without Walls—can be accessed online
The U.S. conducts a wide array of intelligence operations in the Andean region, passing information collected to host governments.
The nature of the intelligence-sharing relationship limits the extent to which the U.S. can control how such information is used by the Andean governments.
U.S. officials have sought to relax restrictions on intelligence sharing with Andean governments at a time when these provisions need to be strengthened.
The Bush administration recently suspended intelligence flights over Peru and Colombia after a Peruvian air force jetacting on U.S. intelligencefired
on a civilian aircraft mistakenly suspected of drug trafficking, killing
an American missionary and her daughter. The incident raises important
questions about U.S. intelligence sharing in the Andean region at a time
when funding for such programs has markedly increased under Plan Colombia.
It also confirms the fears of State Department officials who warned in
1994 that a shootdown leading to the death of innocent persons would
likely be a serious diplomatic embarrassment for the United States.
The U.S. conducts a range of intelligence operations in the Andean region.
Plan Colombia is only the most recent manifestation of an increasingly
militarized policy that has focused largely on stopping the flow of illegal
drugs at the source. The counterdrug mission, in the words of former U.S.
Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) chief Gen. Charles Wilhelm, relies upon timely,
accurate, predictive, and actionable intelligence. As the intensity
of source-country counterdrug operations has increased in the 1990s, so
too have the associated intelligence support programs.
The first Bush administration enhanced intelligence sharing in 1989
as part of a broader militarization of U.S. counterdrug programs with
the issuance of National Security Directive 18. NSD 18 and subsequent
policy papers called for real time intelligence techniques that
use leading edge radar, establishing a constellation of coordinated
intelligence systems throughout the U.S. and Latin America. President
Bill Clinton strengthened source-country interdiction programs in 1993
with the issuance of Presidential Decision Directive 14, shifting the
emphasis away from transit zones in Central America and the Caribbean
and toward the Andean source countries. The resulting Air Bridge Denial
Program, in place since 1995, uses U.S. intelligence assets and private
military contractors to track suspect aircraft in the Andean region for
interception by host government forces.
The U.S. employs Relocatable Over-the-Horizon Radar (ROTHR) systems
in Texas, Virginia, and Puerto Rico to provide wide-area detection and
surveillance of air targets throughout the region. The U.S. has also established
Forward Operating Locations (FOL) in the Dutch Antilles, Ecuador, and
El Salvador to replace aerial tracking facilities lost with the 1999 closure
of Howard Air Force Base in Panama. An integrated network of radar systems,
including the Caribbean Basin Radar Network and other ground-based radars
throughout the region, also assists regional military operations. Detailed
maps are provided by DODs National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA),
while the ultra-secret National Security Agency (NSA) monitors communications
and other electronic signals. These operations are planned, coordinated,
and supervised by the Joint Interagency Task Force East (JIATF-E) in Key
West, Florida. JIATF-E also houses the Joint Southern Surveillance and
Reconnaissance Operations Center (JSSROC), which fuses and disseminates
intelligence gathered by aerial, ground-based, ROTHR, and other radar
Hoping to avoid U.S. casualties, the counterdrug strategy relies on
source-country security forces to act on intelligence gathered by U.S.
systems. This arrangement limits the extent to which the U.S. can control
the way the data is used. Sovereignty issues also complicate efforts to
enforce end-use restrictions.
The shoot-down in Peru is only the most recent case in which counterdrug
intelligence sharing has implicated the U.S. in the potentially criminal
activities of host governments. U.S. intelligence was used to locate the
targets of illegal Colombian paramilitary groups during the hunt for drug
kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1993. A number of Peruvian officials who were
on the receiving end of U.S. intelligence assistanceincluding former
intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinosare wanted or awaiting trial
on charges ranging from drug trafficking to terrorism to illegal arms
There are also indications that U.S. intelligence is supporting counterguerrilla
operations. Recent statements from U.S. and Colombian officials emphasize
an inextricable link between guerrillas and the drug trade in an apparent
effort to permit the diversion of U.S. security assistanceincluding
intelligenceto combat rebel groups. Just days after the shoot-down
of the missionary plane, troops from the Colombian armys U.S. trained
and equipped Counter-Narcotics Battalion killed guerrillas for the first
time during a counterdrug operation. Furthermore, over the past several
years the U.S. has significantly loosened restrictions on intelligence
sharing with Andean governments. Until 1995, U.S. law banned the use of
U.S. intelligence information in support of the shoot-down of civil aircraft.
Guidelines in place before March 1999 also prohibited the use of U.S.
intelligence in counterguerrilla operations. Both restrictions have since
Problems with Current U.S. Policy
U.S.-supplied counterdrug intelligence has been used by host governments
in ways that violate U.S. and international law, implicating the U.S.
as accessory to potentially criminal acts.
Counterdrug intelligence is used to target guerrilla groups, threatening
to draw the U.S. into a Vietnam-like counterinsurgency conflict.
Several individuals with whom U.S. intelligence agencies have developed
close ties now face a variety of corruption and human rights charges.
The adoption of a shoot-down policy by Peru and Colombia sparked an intense
debate within the Clinton administration in 1994, prompting the Department
of Defense (DOD) to suspend real-time intelligence sharing due to concerns
that the use of force against civil aircraft might subject DOD personnel
to legal liability. State Department policymakers complained that the
suspension would set back progress in counterdrug cooperation, while critics
of the policy from the State Departments legal office maintained
that the shoot-down policy violated domestic and international law, emphasizing
that mistakes are likely to occur under any policy that contemplates
the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight, even as a last resort.
Under intense pressure from Congress, the Clinton administration, according
to a State Department memo, decided to eliminate domestic and international
legal impediments to the shoot-down policy. U.S. law was amended
to allow the use of U.S. intelligence in operations against suspicious
planes when the country has appropriate procedures in place to protect
innocent aircraft. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) sponsored legislation
providing legal immunity for U.S. officials involved in these operations.
The new policy did not solve the international legal problems raised by
the shoot-down policy, but rather sought to reduce the [U.S. governments]
exposure to criticism that such assistance violates international law.
With the legislations passage the U.S. became accessory to a policy
in violation of international law and the principle of due process.
Also disturbing are indications that Andean governments accept U.S. counterdrug
assistance largely as a means to fight insurgent groups. A 1992 CIA report
noted that Andean government assertions that increased attacks against
the insurgents would affect the drug trade are primarily an attempt to
convince the U.S. to allow the use of counternarcotics aid for counterinsurgency
operations, and that officials in Lima and Bogotá,
if given antidrug aid for counterinsurgency purposes, would turn it to
pure antiguerrilla operations with little payoff against trafficking.
Indeed, as of 1991 the Colombian army had no apparent intention to attack
the drug trade. A Colombian army document obtained by Human Rights Watch
indicates that a 1991 reorganization of the Colombian military intelligence
systemdrawn up with assistance from CIA and DOD officialsmade
no mention of drugs and instead focused on the armed subversion.
Restrictions were modified in March 1999 to permit the sharing of intelligence
on guerrillas for the purpose of planning counterdrug operations. However,
that same year the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that
U.S. officials do not have a system to ensure that [intelligence]
is not being used for other than counternarcotics purposes and that
U.S. embassy officials sometimes have difficulty distinguishing
insurgents from drug traffickers.
The concept of the narcoguerrilla endorsed by many U.S.
and Colombian officials has made it even more difficult for the U.S. to
segregate counterdrug intelligence from that related solely to insurgent
groups. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, then an adviser to
the incoming Bush administration, said in January that that the U.S. cannot
continue to make a false distinction between counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics
efforts. More recently, Gen. Mario Montoya, commander of Colombian
army operations in southern Colombia told reporters that he no longer
tries to distinguish between the various armed factions. For us
they are all drug-traffickers. The characterization of insurgent
groups as drug cartels misrepresents the political objectives of the guerrillas
and unduly simplifies the nature of Colombias internal conflict.
Perhaps even more disturbing are allegations raised in Mark Bowdens
recent book, Killing Pablo , about the U.S. role in the hunt for
Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar in 1992. The investigation found
evidence that members of the task force charged with Escobars capture
collaborated with an illegal group that systematically eliminated people
and property associated with Escobars network. Individuals in the
Colombian National Police passed intelligence obtained from the U.S. to
this group, the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar ( Los Pepes ),
which used it to carry out assassinations, bombings, and other attacks
on Escobars family and associates. One of the groups alleged
principals, the now-deceased Fidel Castaño Gil, is the brother
of Carlos Castaño, the leader of the United Self-Defense Forces
of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary organization openly involved in the
drug trade and blamed for the vast majority of the countrys massacres,
killings, and displacements in recent years. Documents obtained during
the investigation show that officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
had frequent contact with Fidel Castaño and other paramilitary
leaders during the hunt for Escobar.
Intelligence sharing arrangements are further compromised by corruption
among Andean security forces. Several Peruvian generals have been arrested
since the flight of President Alberto Fujimori last year, charged with
everything from bribery to drug corruption to state-sponsored terrorism.
Peruvian Gen. Juan Miguel Aguila, indicted in connection to the bombing
of a bank in Lima, recounted that, The U.S. was our partner in every
respect, giving us intelligence, training, equipment, and working closely
with us in the field. The issue has prompted a Peruvian congressional
investigation and criticism of the U.S. intelligence program. Fujimoris
former intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, considered a staunch
U.S. ally in the drug war, is now charged with some 31 criminal counts
in connection to civilian massacres, drug trafficking and other crimes,
including the illegal diversion of arms to Colombian guerrilla groups.
The U.S. has yet to provide a full accounting of its involvement with
Toward a New Foreign Policy
The U.S. should not resume the sharing of intelligence in support
of the shoot-down policy employed by Peru and Colombia.
The U.S. should cease providing guerrilla-related intelligence to
Colombia under the guise of counterdrug intelligence.
President Bush should order the immediate declassification of documents
pertaining to Colombian and Peruvian officials now under investigation
for corruption, terrorism, or other human rights crimes.
In March 2001, Gen. Peter Pace, the commander of U.S. military forces
in the Andean region, told a congressional committee that the ability
to execute effective [counternarcotics] operations is often hampered by
restrictions on sharing data with our partner nations. Pace suggested
that the U.S. streamline sharing procedures that are currently used
for time sensitive counterdrug information. The shoot-down of the
missionary aircraft in Peru less than a month after Paces testimony
suggests, however, that such procedures should be tightened rather than
Prior to the Clinton administrations decision to support the shoot-down
policy, the U.S. had long opposed the use of weapons against unarmed civil
aircraft. The U.S. vigorously condemned the Soviet Unions shoot-down
of a Korean jet in 1984 and the Cuban air forces downing of aircraft
piloted by a Cuban-American group in 1996. Indeed, the international convention
on civil aviation could not be clearer on this point: Every state
must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft
in flight and that, in the case of interception, the lives of persons
onboard and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered.
A State Department position paper, drawn up in 1989 to oppose an effort
by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to authorize a counterdrug shoot-down policy
for the U.S., made the following points:
The U.S. could not adopt such a policy without signalling [sic] its
appropriateness for other nations, some that would be far less careful
than the United States… Once such a practice begins, it will have
dangerous and widespread consequences that could affect the safety of
innocent U.S. citizens. As the world leader in civil aviation, the United
States would have more to lose than any other country in the development
of such a practice.
The Department of Justice expressed concern that the policy would
obviate many of the procedural safeguards fundamental to our system of
criminal jurisprudence, questioning whether the taking of
lives without due process of law would be held constitutional by the courts.
Aside from being illegal under domestic and international law, the policy
undermines U.S. efforts to protect its own civil aircraft, subjects the
U.S. to international criticism, and has now resulted in the deaths of
The Bush administration should reject the use of weapons against civil
aircraft under any circumstances. Congress should approve legislation
recently introduced by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) that would ban the
U.S. from providing information to help foreign countries in forcing or
shooting down aircraft suspected of drug-related operations. The provision
of real-time aerial tracking assistance should be suspended until Peru
and Colombia abandon the policy.
Second, the U.S. should clarify its policy toward Colombia, and deal
openly and honestly with the complexities of that countrys internal
conflict. The GAO noted in 1999 that the sharing of intelligence
information with the Colombian military creates an operational and policy
dilemma for U.S. officials in drawing a distinction between support for
counternarcotics versus counterinsurgency activities. If the U.S.
intends to support the counterinsurgency operations of the Colombian army,
then this should be openly acknowledged so that Congress and the public
can debate the merits of U.S. involvement. To continue to provide guerrilla-related
intelligence under the guise of counterdrug assistance only confuses the
issue and mischaracterizes the essentially political nature of a decades-old
armed conflict that has only recently crossed paths with the drug trade.
Finally, President Bush should order the immediate declassification
of documents pertaining to Peruvian officials now under investigation
for corruption, terrorism, and other human rights crimes. The declassification
process would shed much-needed light on the history of the U.S. intelligence
program in Peru, and also demonstrate how the U.S. might in the future
avoid developing cooperative intelligence relationships with individuals
likely to use that information in violation of international law or human
rights. Noted one Peruvian congressman, If U.S. intelligence did
not know what was going on, it certainly should have. You cant just
offer that kind of assistance to a government like Fujimoris and
then take no responsibility for the consequences.
Michael L. Evans < email@example.com >
is the director of the Colombia Documentation Project at the National
Security Archive, a nongovernmental research organization located at George
Washington University that works for the declassification of documents
under the Freedom of Information Act. He is author of several National
Security Archive Electronic Briefing Books. The views expressed here are
his alone and do not reflect those of the National Security Archive.
Sources for More Information
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association
421 Aviation Way
Frederick, MD 21701
Voice: (301) 695-2000
Fax: (301) 695-2375
Amnesty International USA
AIUSA Washington Office
304 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Washington, DC 20003-1130
Voice: (510) 986-0885
The Center for International Policy
1755 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Suite 312
Washington, DC 20036
Voice: (202) 232-3317
Fax: (202) 232-3440
Contact: Adam Isacson
Human Rights Watch
1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20009
Voice: (202) 612-4321
Fax: (202) 612-4333
National Security Archive
The George Washington University
Gelman Library, Suite 701
2130 H Street NW
Washington, DC 20037
Voice: (202) 994-7029
Fax: (202) 994-7005
Contact: Michael Evans
Washington Office on Latin America
1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, 2nd Floor
Washington, DC 20009
Voice: (202) 797-2171
Fax: (202) 797-2172
Contact: Gina Amatangelo
Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the Worlds Greatest
Outlaw (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001).
Michael Evans, Shoot Down in Peru: The Secret U.S. Debate over Intelligence
Sharing in Peru and Colombia , April 23, 2001, available at: http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB44 .
Anthony Faiola, U.S. Allies in Drug War in Disgrace, The
Washington Post , May 9, 2001.
Douglas Farah, U.S. Widens Colombia Counter-Drug Efforts; Restrictions
Loosened on Data Sharing, The Washington Post , July 10, 1999.
Human Rights Watch, Colombias Killer Networks , available
at: http://www.hrw.org/hrw/summaries/s.colombia9611.html .
T. Christian Miller, Rebels Blur the Lines in Drug War,
Los Angeles Times , May 3, 2001.
Andrew Selsky, Colombia Rebels, Drug Trade Linked, Associated
Press, April 4, 2001.
United States Central Intelligence Agency, Narco-Insurgent Links
in the Andes , July 29, 1992, available at the National Security Archive.
United States General Accounting Office, Drug Control: Assets DOD
Contributes to Reducing the Illegal Drug Supply Have Declined (GAO/NSIAD-00-9),
December 1999, available at: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/ns00009.pdf .
United States General Accounting Office, Drug Control: Narcotics
Threat from Colombia Continues to Grow (GAO/NSIAD-99-136), June 1999,
available at: http://www.gao.gov/archive/1999/ns99136.pdf .
This brief is a product of the Interhemispheric Resource
Center’s Global Affairs
and Americas Programs .
All rights reserved.
Recommended citation: "U.S. Drug Policy &
Intelligence Operations in the Andes," Foreign Policy In Focus Policy
Brief, vol. 6, iss. 22 (Interhemispheric Resource Center/Institute for
Policy Studies, June 2001).