Peru's downing of a plane carrying American missionaries, killing a missionary and her daughter, has focused new attention on the war on drugs in South America a war in which private citizens are running military missions.
Peru's government says it regrets Friday's incident, in which a Peruvian air force jet working in tandem with a U.S.-sponsored surveillance plane mistook the American missionaries' plane for a drug courier and shot it out of the sky.
Peru claims the pilot failed to file a flight plan or establish communication with the jets tracking it. The missionaries contend that they did file a flight plan. The White House has criticized the Peruvian action and U.S. officials say the surveillance plane crew argued against the shooting.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the plane involved was owned by the U.S. government and staffed by a Peruvian officer and CIA contractors.
CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports the Americans were employees of a private U.S. company, one of several helping fight the drug war in Colombia and Peru.
Two of the largest are Virginia-based DynCorp and, until recently, MPRI.
The firms hold the contracts for air support and logistics through the $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package called Plan Colombia.
Washington says the plan, and other aid to Latin America, is intended to help local governments cut drug production. But some in Congress are skeptical, worried about the possibility of an escalating American military commitment.
"This is supposed to be an aid package, this is supposed to be a counter narcotics package and yet all the elements of a war are beginning to emerge," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. " We could be sucked into a kind of Vietnam conflict that's going to take lots of lives and many years to get out of."
Schakowsky and others say they can't get the State Department to answer questions about private military involvement in South America.
Ed Soyster, a retired general, says until last month his company, MPRI, was involved in the anti-drug effort in Colombia.
"Our focus is with the ministry of defense and assisting them with restructuring and focusing their efforts in the counter-drug area," he said. "We work with logistics, we work with their training, intelligence, those things that function at the ministry level."
Private military companies are barred by State Department license from ever taking part in combat. But observers say it happens.
"For DynCorp and these other companies to say, 'We're not involved in combat' is ridiculous," said Wayne Madsen of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
DynCorp will not discuss one recent incident in which two of its private soldiers flew a helicopter into a jungle battle under heavy fire from rebel forces. The Americans, said to have been armed with M-16 rifles, went in to rescue tapped Colombian police.
"Either we're involved or we're not. And I think it's clear that we are, because most of these people are retired military, retired CIA," said Schakowsky. "They are armed they are engaged in ground fights."
Military expert Thomas K. Adams, writing in the U.S. Army War College Quarterly, found that "For the risk-averse, like the U.S. military, employing such private contractors can help to overcome the political reluctance to become involved in situations where risks are high and there is little domestic constituency for the involvement of U.S. troops."
A 1993 presidential directive shifted U.S. anti-drug efforts from Mexico and the Caribbean to so-called source countries, like Colombia and Peru. The U.S. carries out joint drug interdiction efforts with Latin American governments under the National Defense Authorization Act of 1995.
"The U.S. Government provides aerial tracking assistance to many countries in the region," Boucher said this week. "Colombia is the only other country that employs a program of interdiction similar to that of Peru."
"Our aircraft provide location data about airplanes that are flying in the region, those that are apparently without flight plans," he said. "We hand off this location data to the Peruvian air force. Peruvian aircraft are responsible for the process of identifying the aircraft and then deciding on any further action."
Boucher said more than 30 aircraft have downed as a result of the operations. The accidental shoot-down of innocents on Friday, he said, "is the first time something like this has happened."
In terms of the dollar value of contracts it was awarded, DynCorp ranked 17th among Defense Department contractors in 2000, garnering $771 million worth.
Some recent deals included $29 million for work on the Defense Message System Transition Hub, $12 million for work with the Central Command's Prepositioned War Reserve Materiel in Southwest Asia program, and $78 million "for long range strategic planning and support for the Directorate of Strategic Planning, U.S. Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs," according to the Pentagon.
MPRI was in 1999 awarded a contract that could be worth a total $58 million "for overall support for Army Force Management planning, integration and execution."
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