In an effort to ground the burgeoning cocaine trade, the governments of Peru and Colombia, with the help of the United States, have taken to grounding drug smugglers - literally.
Using secret ground radar stations in South America and two kinds of radar equipped planes based in Peru, the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Air Force are able to track planes hauling coca leaves over the Peruvian jungle.Tracking drug smugglers isn't the problem. The problem is with what happens next.
The data are relayed to Colombia and Peru, which send fighter planes to intercept and, in some cases, shoot down the drug smugglers.
Reports show that at least 27 flights have been forced to land, seized or destroyed on the ground, or shot out of the sky since the the radar-sharing program resumed in March.
Pentagon officials say Operation Constant Vigil makes it harder for drug chiefs to airlift raw coca from Peru to processing labs in Colombia. And supporters say disrupting air routes pressures the Cali cocaine cartel.
Their points are well-taken. But the ends can't justify the means: Based on information supplied by the United States, suspected traffickers are being convicted - and in some cases executed - without benefit of a trial. Due process, it seems, is being tossed out the window.
How can a program like this be justified when our nation is built on the precept that one is innocent until proved guilty? Such summary punishments don't jibe with our brand of democracy, or with our definition of human rights.
The issue here isn't whether drug smugglers should be pursued. They should. And this isn't an issue of whether the United States should do everything in its power to stop drugs from invading its borders. It should. The issue is whether suspected traffickers have the right to due process before being shot out of the sky. And they do.
And innocent pilots and their passengers have the right to feel reasonably safe while jetting across the jungles of Peru.
Customs began air surveillance in the 1970s to detect contraband flights into U.S. air space. It was the Bush administration that pushed the idea of sharing radar intelligence with the Andean air forces, contending that interdiction must start at the source.
The United States suspended radar sharing in May 1994 out of concern that U.S. officials could be held liable if Colombia or Peru shot down the wrong plane. President Clinton OK'd the program's resumption in December, after receiving assurances that the Andean air forces have adequate safeguards to prevent accidental shootdowns. Peru and Colombia cannot use the data to attack a plane unless it is flying without a flight plan in a no-fly zone.
"They (Andean fighters) don't simply fly up to it and shoot it down," one Pentagon official who supports the program told the Associated Press. "We think it is a rigorous process and drug traffickers go into these areas at their own peril."
But history has shown that radar technology isn't foolproof.
On April 14, 1994, a pair of U.S. fighter jets enforcing the no-fly zone over northern Iraq shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters they had mistaken for Iraqi helicopters. Twenty-six people were killed. An investigation found that a radar plane failed to warn the fighters of the choppers' presence.
On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an Air Iran plane carrying 290 people. The Vincennes believed the airliner was an attacking fighter jet.
The United States, Colombia and Peru cannot take the chance of repeating such a tragedy.
Mere suspicion doesn't merit the death penalty.