PLAN COLOMBIA'S SECRET AIR FORCE PROGRAM IN PERU
A Father Waits for Justice as Deadly Accident Reveals Air-Interception Exercises
A tragic air accident on Peru's northern coastline in August of 2001 cost the lives of two exemplary pilots, one Peruvian and one American. It received little notice at the time. But a WW4 REPORT investigation into the incident has exposed a series of blunders, mysterious official silence from both Lima and Washington, and finally a trail of corruption extending from the hand of Peru's former intelligence czar Vladimir Montesinos--now convicted on multiple corruption charges--to the U.S. State Department. The regime of Peru's authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori, ousted in November 2000, is now widely recognized to have allowed drug flights to get through, and the U.S.-coordinated program to shoot the flights down was officially suspended after the embarrassing downing of an innocent missionary plane in April 2001. But training for the program apparently continued at least through 2003 and the State Department won't talk. The father of the Peruvian pilot killed in the 2001 accident wants to know why. And since your tax-dollars may be funding a clandestine military operation in South America that violates official policy--you should too.
by Peter Gorman
"If you want to talk about corruption, the United States is continuing to sacrifice youth such as my son in the name of stopping cocaine. But this is not what they are doing. This is a charade."
So says Carlos Lama Borges, a retired Peruvian Air Force captain whose pilot son's body was found washed up on a desert beach four years ago. Despite evidence of faulty equipment in his son's plane, a Peruvian government investigation blamed the pilot in the accident, prompting Lama to file a lawsuit against the Peruvian armed forces and U.S. military contractors to discover the truth. For his effort, his home was burglarized, and materials related to the case stolen. The ongoing case, ignored by both the U.S. and Peruvian media, may reveal that a controversial air-interception program launched under Plan Colombia continued well after its official suspension.
In 1990, Washington and Peru entered into an agreement--formalized as a bilateral treaty in 1993--whereby the U.S. would aid Peru's armed forces in the location, identification, interception and/or neutralization of small aircraft suspected of carrying coca base from Peruvian territory to finishing laboratories in Colombia. The Airbridge Denial Program, as it was known, defined the role of U.S.-contracted planes and pilots (and later, radar operators) as one of location and identification, with the Peruvian Air Force (FAP) calling the shots on which planes were to be intercepted or shot down. The actual shooting was also to be the responsibility of the Peruvians. A similar program with the same name was also utilized in Colombia with the same public protocol.
That either the Peruvians or Colombians were actually given the green light to call the shots on shootdowns has been disputed by former DEA agent Celerino Castillo, who was one of the US men involved in a precursor program to Airbridge Denial in Peru in the 1980s. Castillo, in conversation with this reporter, claimed that despite the Peruvians being given the final word on paper, the shootdown orders "always originated with the U.S. That was not something we were going to trust to anyone else."
Castillo, a Bronze Star winner in Vietnam who served with the DEA in Peru in 1984 and '85, said the real authority was with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, whose men accompanied the DEA flights that in turn accompanied the FAP flights. "I flew on those shoot-down missions. Nobody, I mean nobody, shoots down anything unless the CIA says so. n those days we flew on helicopters and the Peruvian soldiers would lean out the window with FN rifles and blast holes from above drug smugglers' planes. I was on those flights. Yes, the Peruvians did the shooting but it was always the U.S. who gave the OK." Several Peruvian pilots involved with the program, speaking on condition of anonymity, concurred with Castillo's assessment.
Between the years 1990 and 2001, official FAP reports claim to have intercepted and forced down or shot down a total of 101 drug-carrying planes. Whether that number is accurate has long been open to debate, as it omits all reference to planes that were forced or shot down which were not found to be carrying drugs. If those are included the total would probably be considerably higher. But the program probably never would have come under public scrutiny if not for some deadly incidents which cost innocent lives. The first actually resulted in the program's suspension, following an investigation and demands for justice from the survivors.
BUNGLE IN THE JUNGLE
On April 20, 2001, at roughly 10:35 AM, a Cessna 185 pontoon plane carrying three missionaries and an infant was misidentified as a suspected drug-carrying plane by US pilots contracted by the CIA as part of the Airbridge Program and shot out of the sky outside of Pevas, in the Peruvian Amazon. The pilot, Kevin Donaldson, had his leg shattered by a gunshot fired by a Peruvian fighter jet, a Cessna A-37B Dragonfly, but managed to bring the plane down into the Amazon safely. James Bowers, like Donaldson a missionary with the Association for Baptist World Evangelism, as well as Bower's son Cory, escaped unharmed--but his wife, Veronica Bowers, and their infant adopted daughter Chastity, were both killed by a single bullet that passed through the mother's head and then killed the baby. Donaldson believes the same shot set the engine alight and ricocheted into his leg.
The shootdown occurred on the eve of newly elected President George Bush's first appearance at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec. In the weeks leading up to the summit, the president of Uruguay, Jorge Battle Ibanez, had announced his intention to call for an end to the failed War on Drugs. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Vicente Fox of Mexico had announced their intentions to second Ibanez' call. If they proceeded with their plan, George Bush--who had inherited Bill Clinton's Plan Colombia and intended to expand it--would have not only been upstaged, but the entire Plan Colombia could have been thrown into a political tailspin. The shootdown, therefore, was either tragic serendipity--or carried out on orders that a drug plane be encountered and shot down that day to give Bush a "victory" to trumpet in Quebec.
If it was the former, the shootdown involved absolute stupidity on the part of the two CIA-contracted pilots who identified the plane as a possible drug flight, as the Cessna was known throughout the region and had filed a flight plan and was following it to the letter. If it was the latter--if an order was given take down a drug flight to undermine Ibanez' position at Quebec--then any plane would have served the purpose, and it was simply bad luck that Donaldson and the Bowers happened to be in the sky that morning.
As both Donaldson and his wife later maintained, the plane was repeatedly strafed while listing upside down in the river. A photographer in Iquitos, the Amazon port city where the plane was brought, reported that only one bullet out of over 60 came from anywhere other than the bottom of the plane.
Did the CIA contractors know the plane was not carrying drugs? Was the strafing was intended to ignite the plane's remaining fuel, causing an explosion which would have erased all trace of its occupants and identification number, allowing Washington to claim the plane was a drug flight? In any event, the plane did not explode--but the shoot-down did upstage the call for an end to the Drug War by the three South American presidents.
The shoot-down also caused Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) to call for Congressional hearings into the Airbridge Denial Programs in both Peru and Colombia. The programs were suspended immediately. At the subsequent hearings it was decided that both programs would be revamped--with better procedures in place to protect innocent planes--before the suspensions would be lifted.
A U.S. investigation into the shoot-down placed the blame on the Peruvian pilots and poor communications; the Peruvian investigation exonerated the Peruvian pilots, while blaming the U.S. personnel and, again, poor communications. Both countries agreed to financial settlements with survivors. (See postcript below.)
DEATH PLUNGE ON THE PACIFIC
On August 19, 2003, more than two years after the suspensions began, the White House announced that President Bush had approved resumption of the Colombian Airbridge Denial Program within three days. Among the changes to the program was that the State Department, through Plan Colombia, would take over the training of Colombian pilots and the flying of the identification planes, effectively taking it out of the hands of the CIA. The subcontractor DynCorp, which had been assigned the mission of identifying the drug flights for the CIA, lost that contract. (The company continues to carry out aerial fumigation flights in Colombia.)
However, a new State Department contract went to ARINC, a Maryland-based aviation company that regularly contracted with the U.S. Department of Defense--particularly in the areas of providing communications, electronics and night-vision capacity to fighter craft. According to an ARINC press release dated April 24, 2002, over a year before the program was resumed in Colombia, the company was "awarded a competitive contract by the U.S. Army Communications and Electronics Command to act as contractor for the U.S. Airbridge Denial Program in Colombia and Peru." The release said the contract was to run "through July 28, 2003." Yet the Airbridge Program has never been officially resumed in Peru.
In fact, ARINC was working with the Airbridge Denial Program long before the missionary plane shoot-down. A contract between the FAP and ARINC dated June 2, 2000, secured by WW4 REPORT, has ARINC in charge of upgrading Peru's fleet of Cessna A-37B Dragonfly jets and training FAP pilots in interception techniques and tactics. Calls to ARINC and Flight Test Associates, an Oklahoma company subcontracted by ARINC to run the pilot training program, verifies that the contract was ongoing even prior to 2000. No White House announcement of the continued training after the Amazon shoot-down was made, however, and no one outside a small group of people involved it was aware of its existence.
Nonetheless, the training did continue after the shoot-down, and on August 23, 2001, several months after the Airbridge Program was suspended, FAP pilot Lieutenant Miguel Angel Lama Barreto, 28, and USAF Lt. Col. (r) Arnold Balthazar, 47, plunged into the Pacific Ocean just north of Piura, on Peru's northern Pacific coast, while executing drug-plane interception practice maneuvers in a Dragonfly. Both Lama and Balthazar died in the crash, caused when their jet stalled and their ejection equipment failed. Lama's body, still strapped into his seat in the ejection position, was recovered two days later. Balthazar's body has never been recovered. A team of U.S. Navy divers brought in from Hawaii searched for more than eight days before search was called off.
Lt. Miguel Angel Lama was one of Peru's brightest pilots, specializing in flight maneuvers in the Dragonfly. A drug-plane interdiction instructor, he was the son of FAP Captain Carlos Lama, a highly respected pilot in the Peruvian Air Force. Miguel is referred to in official Peruvian materials as "an instructor's instructor."
Arnold Balthazar's resume reads like an induction speech at the Air Force Hall of Fame. A cum laude graduate of the University of Portland, OR, which he attended on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, he graduated from USAF Pilot Training in 1978, became an Air Combat Maneuvering Instructor the same year, training in basic interceptions. He became a Flight Commander in 1982 and an F-15 instructor pilot the same year, a position he held, with increasing responsibilities, until 1988. Between 1988-1991 he was Chief of Weapons and Tactics at Hickam AFB in Hawaii, during which time he was selected by the USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chariman Gen. Colin Powell, Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney on the F-15's capability and employment during Operation Desert Storm.
Balthazar retired from the Air Force in 1991, joining the Air National Guard and working out of the Air Force Reserve Test Center in Tucson, AZ, from 1991-1998. He retired as a lieutenant colonel USAF.
Awards he earned during his career included the Wing Top Gun F-15 Award in 1988, the Pacific Air Force's Outstanding Performer of the Year Award in 1991; and the Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Channault Award as the USAF's Outstanding Aerial Tactician of the Year in 1995--the only time the award has been presented to someone not on active duty in the Air Force. He also developed no-cabin-light night-flying systems currently in use in the Air Force, and developed an F-15 Training Plan that was included in USAF manuals "in its entirety".
In short, both Lama and Balthazar were superior pilots who should not have crashed and died while performing an exercise. But they did. And they did it while exercising for a program that was supposed to be suspended. Unraveling their deaths leads to a web of corruption as well as an abyss of incompetence.
Following his retirement Balthazar became an owner/operator of Lead Turn Enterprises, a flight-test, navigational training, air-to-air engagement and aviation systems consulting firm. He contracted with Flight Test Associates of Tucson, AZ, to install his night-vision system in FAP interceptor planes in 1999, and had a second contract with Flight Test Associates as a counter-drug intercept instructor for Colombian and Peruvian instructor pilots that ran from 1999-2000. Flight Test Associates was itself subcontracted by ARINC, already established as a contractor for both aircraft upgrades and intercept training for the Defense Department. Balthazar's partner in the intercept training, USAF Captain (r) Neville Sonner, was employed directly by Flight Test Associates.
After the missionary shoot-down, someone--though neither the State Department, DoD, ARINC or Flight Test Associates will admit it was them--decided that one of the key ingredients to maximize the safety of non-drug flights was to have Peruvian pilots pull up alongside all planes suspected of carrying drugs and make eye contact with the pilots. Eye contact would theoretically allow the pilots to make a judgement as to whether the suspect plane was being piloted by someone who looked like a drug-smuggler or a missionary and respond accordingly. For some aircraft--those capable of flying at speeds the A-37B is capable of--this was a wacky but physically possible maneuver. For others--like the single-engine Cessna that Kevin Donaldson was flying when it was hit--eye contact with the pilot of an A-37B was impossible: Donaldson's plane had a top speed of 137 mph when empty; with five passengers it couldn't hit 125 mph. The A-37B, on the other hand, with a top speed of over 500 mph, stalls at under 140 except when the flaps are in a take-off or landing position.
On the flight in question, FAP pilot Miquel Lama and Balthazar were practicing exactly this intercept maneuver with a second plane piloted by FAP Lt. Nilton Lopez Zuniga and Sonner. They had already practiced three maneuvers; the fourth called for the planes to drop in altitude to under 3,000 feet, slow to 140, intersect, and then for one of them to try an evasive maneuver. Lopez and Sonner did just that; when Lama and Balthazar turned to chase, their plane stalled. Moments later Sonner claimed he saw the cockpit roof fly off the stalled plane; he expected to see both pilots eject and parachute to the sea. He and Lopez took their plane up to 9,000 feet to be able to identify the exact points where the parachutes landed, but there were no parachutes. The ejection seats failed and both pilots crashed into the Pacific still strapped into the plane.
A Peruvian military investigation into the accident quickly blamed it on "pilot error"--blaming Lama and Balthazar for their own deaths. But Lama's father, retired FAP pilot Carlos Lama, demanded a Peruvian congressional investigation and launched a lawsuit against both the FAP and ARINC. His legal demands unleashed a mountain of official paperwork--nearly 1,000 pages, including the contracts between the FAP and ARINC, Balthazar's training logs in Peru, US Embassy and DoD paperwork, and a host of other materials.
Initially, Lama was trying to ascertain whether ARINC's "aircraft modernization" contract held them responsible for modernizing the ejection equipment and parachutes in his son's plane--equipment that was more than 29 years old. Some of that remains unclear: the paperwork suggests that the FAP was responsible for changing the equipment, but that GRUCAM, the U.S. Defense Department military liaison program in Peru--which had contracted ARINC--was to provide that equipment with monies from Plan Colombia. ARINC's Bob Warner, who heads up the corporation's Oklahoma City office, claims that the modernization contract "had us there to install night vision cockpits but nothing in our contract called for us looking into the ejection seat apparatus." When asked about the accident, Warner said "The flight that went down was not one of the modernized aircraft," then quickly added that "I cannot speak to the accident in which the pilots died. There's a lawsuit going on related to that and my lawyers have told us not to talk about it."
But Carlos Lama's investigation turned up more than he'd anticipated. Shortly after his investigation into his son's death began his home in Lima was subject to a robbery in which all of his initial notes and nearly everything he owned pertaining to his son was looted. "They took pictures, his military things, paperwork, his letters telling me about the intercept program--everything. I was supposed to stop looking. No one wants anyone looking too deeply into this."
There were reasons for his feelings. One of the names that comes up on three separate contracts that connect the U.S. Embassy in Lima to GRUCAM and the DoD as well as to ARINC, Flight Test Associates and the FAP is a retired Peruvian Air Force major, Jose Luis Gamboa Burgos, listed as the official representative of ARINC and FTA in Peru. The address he lists as the official address of both ARINC and FTA in Peru is that of his brother, Luis Felipe Gamboa Burgos--today recognized as a major player in Peru's cocaine mafia.
While there has never been any proof that the lawyer Jose Luis Gamboa is dirty, his brother Luis Felipe is another story--and the use of his address as the official location in Peru of a DoD subcontractor raises eyebrows. A former security officer in the FAP, Luis Felipe left the military (and his five brothers who were still in it at the time) in 1989 to become an aide to Vladimiro Montesinos, a former Peruvian army captain with School of the Americas training who was then working on the presidential campaign of Alberto Fujimori. The following year, Fujimori was elected to his first term as Peru's president and Montesinos became the power behind the Fujimori throne as well as the CIA's man in Peru, earning $1 million a year from the Agency for ostensibly helping Peru eliminate the coca trade. Montesinos actually used that money to create a secret police force--the National Intelligence Service (SIN)--that helped coordinate all of the coca base shipments moving from Peru to Colombia for finishing and export. Between 1990 and 2000, Montesinos became the jefe to whom all those who wanted their shipments protected paid protection money. Those who didn't pay, with few exceptions, found their shipments being discovered and confiscated by the Peruvian narcotics police with the help of the DEA--or their planes shot out of the sky by the FAP with the help of the CIA. Montesino's SIN rarely missed anything.
To help him coordinate his efforts, after Fujimori's election, Montesinos hired Luis Felipe Gamboa to work with CORPAC--the Peruvian corporation that runs all commercial aviation in the country, including security. Rumors began to spread almost instantly that Gamboa was helping cocaine leave the country by circumventing security, through his work with CORPAC. It wasn't until several years had passed, however, that he was indicted for security fraud, a charge that appears to have disappeared as quickly as it came up. He nonetheless left CORPAC and went to work as a liaison between the FAP and Montesinos.
Not long after he began working with Montesinos, Luis Filipe Gamboa suggested that his wife, Maria del Carmen Lozada Rendon de Gamboa would make a good congresswoman, and in 1995 she was elected to Peru's Congress. She had a reputation for strong-arming her colleagues, but nothing came of it until July, 27, 2001, when she was impeached after it was revealed that she had received the monies used in her 1995 election campaign from Montesinos. She was removed from Congress on August 18, 2001 and remains under investigation for influence peddling and spying for Montesinos in Congress.
During the investigation of Carmen Lozada Gamboa, it became public record in the notorious "vladi-videos"--secret videos of Vladimir Montesinos meeting with top Peruvian politicians whose relase were instrumental in the downfall of the Fujimori regime--that her husband had been receiving between $3,000 and $5,000 monthly from Montesinos for more than 10 years from 1990 to spy on CORPAC and later the FAP for the SIN. He became a fugitive shortly after his indictment and remains in hiding.
When questioned by WW4 REPORT on the propriety of using the address of a man who was (at that time) a suspected cocaine mafioso and spy, ARINC's Bob Warner responded: "He [Jose Luis Gamboa] was a fellow vetted and recommended to us by the US embassy. He was a former officer in the Peruvian Air Force. I think this ends this conversation."
More than two-dozen calls to the State Department over a three-month period asking about Luis Felipe's connection to ARINC and their having cleared the use of his address as ARINC's Peruvian location--as well as inquiring as to why there continued to be Airbridge Denial exercises when the program had been shut down indefinitely--went unreturned.
Calls to the former GRUCAM commandant who signed off on at least one contract between ARINC and the FAP that named the indicted Luis Felipe Gamboa's address as ARINC's official Peruvian address, were met with a genteel response from his spokesman, Lee Rials. "Col. Perez doesn't remember that contract. He probably signed off on thousands of things while he was Group Commander down in Lima and he just doesn't remember it."
Rials is probably telling the truth for Col. Gilberto Perez, who is now the Commandant of the Western Hemisphere Institite for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of Americas) at Fort Benning, Georgia.
The question of who signed off on the vetting of Jose Luis Gamboa as ARINC's representative is a valid one, and that of ARINC's official Peruvian headquarters being in the home of his brother Luis Felipe, a man who was spying for Montesinos, even more so. Luis Felipe would be privy to flight schedules and missions, the number of U.S. planes in the air on a given day, even what pilots were working in Peru at a given time as well as a host of other information that would be invaluable to someone moving drugs through the air.
That the State Department refuses to return calls addressing the issue after several months of calling would appear inexcusable.
IN THE END
What began as a father's concern that his son was being wrongfully blamed for pilot error in the accident that cost his life, is certainly more than that. How much more is difficult to ascertain given that no one will answer the questions. And there are several.
First: Who authorized the Airbridge Denial Program practice exercises to continue after the program was suspended indefinitely?
Second: Who decided it was in the interests of the pilots to look into the eyes of the pilots they were intercepting, potentially requiring them to fly at stall-speed?
Third: Who was actually supposed to modernize the ejection systems? A second stall occurred over Piura on Feb. 10, 2004 while the pilots performed the same maneuver as Lama and Balthazar, but in that crash both pilots ejected successfully. ARINC's Warner says his company's contract ran out at the end of 2003, and so denies any knowledge of it. In a second suit, Carlos Lama brought a civil action against the Peruvian government for continuing to perform the dangerous maneuver; Peruvian authorities claimed they were no longer carrying out such maneuvers, and dismissed the case.
Fourth: Who allowed Luis Filipe Gamboa's address to be utilized as the official Peruvian address of ARINC and FTA--and why didn't anyone notice that that would be the equivalent of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse?
No one is liable to take the responsibility for any of those decisions. Carlos Lama has already been offered a settlement by the Peruvian FAP for the loss of his son's life, but he has turned it down, preferring to find out who was responsible rather than taking the money to shut up. His lawsuit against ARINC is proceeding but may not get far: ARINC has apparently never officially registered as a company in Peru and therefor not only has avoided paying taxes, but has avoided having any assets to lose either. And it is doubtful that the DoD will permit any lawsuit to be pursued in the U.S. that would require the release of classified documents--which involve much of ARINC's work in Peru.
"My Angel is gone," says Carlos Lama. "I just want to find out who is responsible, but I don't know if they will let me. They have too much to protect and don't want light in those dark corners."
POSTSCRIPT: The Missionary Plane Shootdown Settlement
The April 20, 2001 shoot-down of a plane carrying American missionaries over the Peruvian Amazon by the Peruvain Air Force (FAP) after it was identified by CIA-contractors as possibly carrying drugs continues to have ramifications in both Peru and the US.
US Payment for the Shoot-down:
In 2002, the US, which maintained that the wrongful shoot-down was the result of a problem with Peruvian communications, nonetheless agreed to pay the survivors and their families a total of $8 million dollars. The monies were paid out in this way:
James Bowers: $3,270,000.
Cory Bowers (James and Veronica's son): $1,000,000.
Kevin Donaldson (surviving pilot of plane): $1,000,000.
Barbara Donaldson (Kevin's wife): $1,000,000.
Garnett Luttig, Sr (Veronica's father): $ 575,000.
Charlotte Luttig (Veronica's mother): $ 575,000.
Garnett Luttig, Jr.(Veronica's brother): $ 290,000.
Patrick Luttig (Veronica's brother) : $ 290,000.
In addition, Peru agreed to reimburse the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism $100,000, for medical expenses incurred as a result of Kevin Donaldson's wounds, and $43,561 in reimbursement for expenses incurred in the funerals of Veronica and Charity Bowers. The Peruvian government also agreed to refurbish or replace the plane that was shot down and to contribute to the building of a recreation center for the association in Iquitos, to be open to the public.
The final decree ordering and accepting the above payments, which was signed in Peru on March 21, 2002, also included a gag order, which effectively prevents Kevin and Barbara Donaldson--who initially stated that the downed plane continued to be strafed while upside down in the Amazon--from repeating that claim.
Peter Gorman's October 2001 story on the Iquitos shoot-down from Narco News
Peter Gorman's wesbite
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, June 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution