Friendly Fire: In Latin America, Foes Aren't the Only Danger

The New York Times -- 29 April 2001

by Tim Weiner

When the fighter pilot's fire ripped through a plane carrying an American missionary family over Peru last week, the bullet holes opened up ironic points of light into American foreign policy in Latin America.

"Know your enemy and know yourself; in 100 battles you will never be in peril," Sun Tzu wrote in "The Art of War." In Latin America, though, it is its friends and allies that the United States does not seem to want to know too well. Today, particularly where the drug war rages, it finds itself, as it has so often in the past, in the awkward position of an arm's-length embrace.

The American drug warriors working hand-in-hand with the Peruvian Air Force pilot were there as part of a pact struck with Peru's disgraced and exiled former president, Alberto K. Fujimori. "It was a compact with Fujimori rather than with Peruvian society," said Robert E. White, a former United States ambassador in El Salvador and Paraguay. And Mr. White, who is now president of the Center for International Policy in Washington, said that such deals may be seen as something less than a bargain by the general populations south of the border: "We don't understand in this country how much Latin Americans look on drugs as our problem and not their problem."

The killing of a missionary and her baby in a plane that C.I.A.-employed spotters had first noticed on radar raised questions that go far beyond the drug war: What is America doing down there, and with whom? Who are its friends, and what happens when it befriends them?

Last year, the United States sent more than $1 billion in weapons, equipment and training to Latin American security forces, largely in the name of fighting drugs. It was more than all the economic and development assistance it provided to the region. A decade after the end of the cold war, Washington is working with every army in Latin America save Cuba's, and military officers, spies and their political cohorts are often its primary points of contact.

The Pentagon says democracy can grow out of this association: that working side-by-side will teach Latin American armies American values. "The sometimes overeager and trigger-happy officers of our partners in the drug wars" will learn discipline that way, as Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal.

But the picture is larger than that. The Latin American military still serves and represents a ruling class far smaller and proportionately more powerful than the United States has seen since the days of the robber barons. The armies no longer run Latin America's governments directly, and they have rewritten their doctrines since the end of the cold war -- no longer scorching the earth as they did in the days of dictatorships. But they have kept their mandate to preserve the power of elites who still wield immense influence even under the region's new civilian governments. And the United States values its own ties to those powerful people -- businessmen, bankers, dynastic families and generals -- as it pursues the varied aspects of its policy, particularly the drug war and free-trade pacts.

What the United States gets out of these alliances, in part, is a variety of stability, which is useful for oil companies seeking to pump Venezuela's crude, for clothing chains seeking cheap Central American labor and for Pentagon officers trying to enforce American drug policy. The argument for such stability is that it could allow prosperity to flourish, and prosperity could transform the region's politics. The problem, though, is when stability becomes stasis and it merely preserves the old economic and political order, in which prosperity has proved to be the most difficult thing to share.

Look back 40 years, to President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, the cold- war carrot that went with the stick of coups and counterinsurgency. The program helped build factories in El Salvador. They were run by the same people who ran the rural haciendas. They dealt with their workers as peons -- same as ever -- and the factories did little to lift the lives of the poor. This fed a cycle of rebellion and repression that burst out in the late 1970's and continued until 1992.

Twenty years ago, as that violence began, a New York Times reporter asked José Napoleón Duarte, the centrist leader of El Salvador's new ruling junta, why the guerrillas were in the hills. The answer was pithy: "Fifty years of lies, 50 years of injustice, 50 years of frustration. This is a history of people starving to death, living in misery. For 50 years the same people had all the power, all the money, all the jobs, all the education, all the opportunities." By and large, they still do.

The American left has had its own set of prisms, often idealizing guerrillas who were no more than bitter men with automatic weapons. Lori Berenson, the American activist imprisoned for life as a Marxist revolutionary in Peru by a hooded military judge in 1996, might possibly be a case in point: Miguel Rincon, a member of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, testified at her retrial last week that she had no idea with whom she had become mixed up.

But over the years, military and political leaders in places like Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama and Peru developed a clearer sense of the rules. They learned that it paid well to appear to be a partner of the United States and a part of American foreign policy. Even better if, like General Manuel Noriega, Panama's dictator in the 1980's, or Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru's spymaster in the 1990's, you were a close friend of the Central Intelligence Agency, providing inside information while nibbling the American embassy's canapes. And better still if you told the gringos what they wanted to hear, reinforcing their preconceptions, creating a closed loop of political analysis.

Such allies received "resources, prestige, legitimacy, and this appeal to the higher authority of the United States -- higher than the fragmented and fractured politics of their own nations and existing institutions," said Marc Chernick, a professor of government and Latin American studies at Georgetown University. The payoff often included access to arms and gentle treatment when issues like corruption, torture and inequality arose.

Peru is a particularly pointed case. It strongly suggests that "we are working with untrustworthy rogue allies," said Coletta Youngers, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, which monitors human-rights issues in the region. "We are trying to impose a military and intelligence solution to a problem that in Latin America is fundamentally economic."

Mr. Fujimori, Peru's president from 1990 until he fled the country in November, had assumed a dictator's mantle. But as he brought inflation under control, attracted new foreign investment, crushed the Marxists and appeared to fight the cocaine trade, he won a measure of approval from Washington. Even after he appeared to steal a third election, the American ambassador in Lima, John Hamilton, attended his inauguration last July. His presence, a senior official of the Clinton administration told The Times, signaled "the reality" that Mr. Fujimori "is going to head the government of Peru at least for the foreseeable future, and we acknowledge that we have mutual, bilateral business to conduct."

Reality has shifted since then. Mr. Fujimori's government lasted less than four more months. It now appears clear that it was a mafia. Mr. Montesinos, the C.I.A.'s old interlocutor, fled into hiding after videotapes showed him as a corrupter of the highest rank. The commander of Peru's armed forces from 1992 to 2000, Gen. Nicolás Hermoza, now stands accused of working with drug smugglers and depositing $14.5 million in Swiss bank accounts. Other senior Peruvian officers stand accused of selling intelligence to drug traffickers to protect them from the shoot-first, ask-later air war -- a key part of the bilateral business between Washington and Lima.

The C.I.A. contractors who man the spotter planes over the Andes were officially out of the chain of command that gave the order to fire on the plane carrying the American missionary, Roni Bowers, 35, and her seven- month-old daughter, Charity, who died. But the plane that fired was made and paid for in America. The pilot was American- trained. And even though some American officials argue that the pilot shouldn't have pulled the trigger without further checks on the airplane's identity, the intelligence that first put the missionaries in the crosshairs was American intelligence, gathered by American personnel, in furtherance of American foreign policy -- which is an attempt to solve the problem of Americans' desire to smoke, snort and shoot cocaine.

Two more deaths will matter little to thousands of peasants growing coca leaves in the Andes because growing corn and beans does not pay them enough to survive. And in the end, they may matter little in a multibillion-dollar American policy, executed by American military and intelligence officers who rely on friends in Latin America for whom past American support has meant much -- a little more immunity, a little more impunity and a lot more power.