Dogging the drug war: Secret missions and extortion claims trouble Congress, Andean nations

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Guerrillas, not coca farmers, profit from U.S. aid, Colombians claim
PANAMA CITY -- A U.S. surveillance plane crashes in a Colombian combat zone, killing all aboard. A private U.S. military contractor sends Americans into combat against rebels who have downed a police helicopter. A civilian aircraft flown by missionaries is shot out of the skies after being tracked by a CIA-contracted aircraft over Peru.

These are the types of U.S. operations - all conducted under the cloak of secrecy and all in the name of fighting drug traffickers - that inadvertently have come under public scrutiny during the past two years.

Watchdog groups and members of Congress are demanding answers about what they say is an increasingly secret drug war that U.S. government personnel and private U.S. contractors are waging in and around Colombia, using $1.3 billion in taxpayer funds.

In Washington this week, conservative and liberal members of Congress demanded that the U.S. government explain its need for so many secret operations related to the counternarcotics mission in the Andean region. And if answers are not forthcoming, some members of Congress warned, future funding might not be forthcoming either.

"The key word here is accountability," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who has introduced a bill to curtail the use of private contractors in policing and military-related missions in the Andean region. "If this is a valid mission that we're on then it seems to me that to have it shrouded in secrecy and keeping it more than at arm's length from the public is a very dangerous process."

Danger requires secrecy

U.S. officials say that in a nefarious zone where drug traffickers regularly mingle with leftist guerrillas, kidnapping rings, paramilitary militias and international money launderers, secret operations play a crucial role in America's overall security strategy for the Andean region.

Many operations must be kept secret because of the dangers American personnel regularly are exposed to, officials say. Would-be kidnappers and leftist guerrillas can be found barely a 20-minute drive from the Colombian capital or in the jungles of northern Ecuador, where the United States is outfitting and expanding an air base for counternarcotics missions.

To make public the activities of private defense contractors or intelligence personnel involved in these missions would effectively make it impossible for them to do their jobs, officials say.

But according to groups that monitor such activities, an increase in so-called "black ops" means U.S. taxpayer dollars are going to fight a covert war whose expenses are not submitted for public scrutiny. Little will be known, and few explanations will be provided to inform the American public about their government's activities.

The issue arose anew April 20 after a U.S. counternarcotics aircraft, operated by a private company reportedly under CIA contract, tracked a single-engine civilian plane over the skies of Peru.

Instead of carrying drugs, the plane turned out to be transporting U.S. missionaries. A mother and her infant daughter were killed.

"The history of these black ops doesn't inspire confidence," said Andrew Miller, who monitors human-rights issues in Latin America for Amnesty International. "If overtly they're shooting down civilian planes, it makes you wonder what's being done covertly."

Activities hidden from public

Of the $1.3 billion in U.S. counternarcotics and military aid now pouring into the Andean region, $55.3 million is devoted to classified, intelligence-related activities that are being hidden from public view, according to the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

Those activities include CIA-run aerial-surveillance missions to track drug traffickers and a sophisticated network of radio intercepts that allow the National Security Agency to monitor guerrilla communications in Colombia, according to U.S. government sources.

Last year, secret U.S. satellite intelligence enabled authorities to track a major drug shipment from Panama to the coastal waters of Ecuador and then to the northern Chilean port of Arica. Without the help of U.S. intelligence, Chilean authorities said, authorities would never have found the 9.7 tons of cocaine hidden in one of the ship's cargo cranes, leading to the third-largest cocaine seizure in history.

For some of its most important missions, Schakowsky complained, the United States is relying more and more on private contractors who employ retired military officers and U.S. Army Special Forces members to conduct combat- related tasks that the military is barred by law from carrying out.

Employees for one such contractor, DynCorp of northern Virginia, say they regularly are exposed to combat situations in Colombia while conducting missions such as aerial spraying of drug crops or maintaining aircraft in areas where guerrilla attacks occur.

Last February, guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) shot down a Colombian police helicopter during a U.S.-supported spraying mission in southern Caqueta province. In order to rescue the helicopter pilot and crew members, DynCorp ordered its combat-trained personnel to assist.

"The FARC were maybe 100 or 200 yards away," the pilot, Colombian police Capt. Giancarlo Cotrino, told a Bogotá newspaper after his rescue. "We were in combat for seven or eight minutes. One of my crew had a grenade launcher and I had my pistol. We were under heavy gunfire up until the (DynCorp) search-and-rescue helicopter landed behind us."

U.S. law allows up to 500 U.S. military personnel and 300 civilian-contract personnel to be deployed in Colombia at any time. They provide counterinsurgency instruction, maintain listening outposts, or monitor air traffic from any of five U.S.-built rural radar stations, among various other tasks.

Military personnel also are deployed in Peru at three U.S.-built radar stations, in addition to hundreds of troops helping to refurbish an air base in Manta, Ecuador, and to construct several military bases in Bolivia.

"If this is a legitimate U.S. mission, we ought to know exactly what it is, and we can't seem to find out," Schakowsky said in a phone interview. "What happens if there is a ground skirmish and there are casualties? What is the obligation of the United States toward these (privately contracted) personnel?"

Nature of missions unclear

Similar questions arose in 1999, when a U.S. de Havilland RC-7 reconnaissance plane crashed in a southern Colombia combat zone, killing all five U.S. service personnel and two Colombian military officers on board. A subsequent investigation blamed the crash on pilot error, but little else was revealed publicly about the nature of the mission.

The government sometimes imposes strict rules of secrecy even when missions are not technically classified as secret. Last year, Alex Pinero, a retired U.S. Special Forces medic who once flew search-and-rescue missions for DynCorp, posted his résumé on the Internet in hopes of finding another job.

When The Dallas Morning News published a story mentioning Pinero's credentials and his current work in Colombia, the State Department immediately revoked his security clearance. The same day, DynCorp notified him that his contract in Colombia was canceled, Pinero said. A DynCorp corporate attorney declined to comment.