Drug war pilot

Spraying herbicides: death from the air for plants, animals and humans.Spraying herbicides: death from the air for plants, animals and humans.During a recent visit to Jamaica, I was standing on a hurricane-depleted beach in Negril when a middle-aged American man, who was holding a beer and smoking a cigarette, began a conversation with me.
“God damn, there’s a lot of dope here,” the sunburned man said, as if it was surprising that there were drugs in Jamaica. “I wish I could bust all of them.”

When I asked the man why he was vacationing in Jamaica when the country is well known for its marijuana and cocaine trade, he said he was on a short break from his job as a “contract pilot” working for the US military in Colombia.

“I usually head for Miami, but there’s some people there who want to kill me and they haven’t been arrested yet,” he said, “so I came here instead.”

At times like this, I am very glad that I look like a short-haired conformist guy. It makes people like the pilot open up to me. I bought the guy another beer and fed his ego while he crowed about his job.

“We’ve got huge bases down there guarded by the Colombian military,” he said proudly. “It’s out in the middle of utter shit, but Uncle Sam sends in the best steaks and equipment.”

The man said he was a former Vietnam War copter pilot who “enjoyed using forward-mounted guns” to “make Swiss cheese out of the gooks” in Vietnam. For his Colombian assignment, which he started three years ago as a contract worker, he learned to fly modified crop dusters and helicopters.

“‘Nam was fun, but this Colombia thing is a lot more fun and it’s real high tech,” he said. “They can’t really shoot back at you except with machine guns and small arms, and they aren’t as well-organized as the gooks were. I’m getting the equivalent of $100 an hour to sit out in the jungle and occasionally kill weeds.”

The pilot said that US spy satellites, along with on-the-ground narks and CIA intelligence sources, have created detailed grid maps of Colombia’s coca growing regions.

“Command will load the maps onto the onboard computer at the start of every mission,” he explained. “We go out basically on auto pilot, and the computer turns on and off our sprayers whenever we are in position over the target crops. We can hit within five foot accuracy, and the computer is programmed with weather information, humidity, wind speed and direction, terrain type, even where the villages are, so we don’t waste the spray and so we can minimize drift and bleedover.”

I told the pilot that I’d heard that the spraying operations are creating a widespread ecological and human disaster.

Director of Colombia`s National Police: pulling out a coca plant north of Bogota.Director of Colombia`s National Police: pulling out a coca plant north of Bogota.“That’s a load of communist bullshit,” he said, choking on his beer. “We aren’t spraying anything more than what people spray to kill weeds on their gardens. The missions are so tightly controlled, the aircraft and the telemetry are high tech. All this stuff has been studied and studied by the government and we wouldn’t be using it if it hurt people. Nobody is getting sick from what we do, even if the stuff goes right on ’em, all they have to do is wash it off. I’ve been spraying thousands of gallons a year for the last three; do I look sick to you?”

A couple of beers later, the pilot admitted that it was “possible” that people, domestic animals, native animals, and non-target plants might be hurt by the spray operations.

“But hey, that’s war, that’s innocent casualties,” he argued, waving a clenched fist in the air. “These yo-yos put their banana and gourd crops, their huts, and their animals right out in the middle of a coca zone, hoping that we won’t spray it because of that. Well, they are wrong. To me, it’s just like if a bank robber gets shot in the middle of a robbery. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. It’s great to go over in clear weather and see those damn plants folding up and dying when you are making a re-pass. We know exactly what we are doing, and those people, if they are getting hurt, ought to stay the fuck out of our way.”

According to the pilot, local soldiers and residents told him that coca agriculture became popular because the US eradicated Colombia’s flourishing marijuana growing industry, which created jobs and wealth in the impoverished country from the mid-1960’s until the late-’70’s, when the US drug war began its inexorable invasion of Latin America.

“From what I hear, the marijuana business was a lot more relaxed and easy going, even on the smuggling end of it,” the pilot said. “They switched over to coca when it became more profitable to grow that than marijuana, and a lot of that was due to what we did to the marijuana crops and the transit lanes. Coca paste is a better money maker, and easier to ship. Maybe old Uncle Sam might ought to have thought of that when he got rid of Colombian marijuana, but it’s all out war now.”

While we were talking, I had to suppress the urge to tell the pilot who I was and the magazine I worked for. I was afraid he might hit me. As he became more loquacious, he described how the Colombian war was just like the Vietnam War.

Local grower checking his small coca plants in Putumayo province.Local grower checking his small coca plants in Putumayo province.“Seen one, seen ’em all,” he pronounced. “Military men are the same everywhere- dirty, crazy, macho, and pissed off. You got a bunch of guys out in a goddamned jungle in the tropics, what do you expect? A lot of them used to work with the rebels, and some of ’em still do. We are always getting goddamned infiltrators coming in pretending to be soldiers loyal to the government, but actually they are FARC [rebels]. They will steal from you, fuck up your equipment, and find out where you are going to spray. We’ve had times when they diluted the spray, drained us, or bent down the tank emitters and stuff like that to sabotage the mission. To be honest, I don’t think that a lot of the Colombian soldiers really like us or what they are doing, but they need the money. Uncle is generous, and they like that.”

Jungle life is harsh for white guys like the pilot. He can’t go into town without a long copter ride and a security escort because everybody mistakes white guys for narks, CIA agents, drug runners, or dumb tourists. He says that he and other American contract operatives band together, work with official US military and spy advisors, and try to enjoy life.

“The boys call ’em jungle prossies,” he said, referring to captive native girls as young as ten years old who are paid by Americans and Colombian soldiers for sex and other servitude. “There’s some cocaine out there, some marijuana, some queers, and then there’s the little girls. I think they are all going to get weirdo diseases. I don’t touch the young stuff, not there, not here. Look at this place. Have you noticed that everywhere that’s known for drugs, it’s a goddamned shithole?”

Several beers later, the pilot was ready to stumble back to his beach hotel and collapse into a night of fitful dreams. The 57-year-old, who confessed to having had nightmares “almost every night” since 1967, told me he had family “back in civilization,” but that he enjoyed the life of a “merry mercenary” who was getting rich flying “agricultural warfare missions.”

“We dropped defoliators in ‘Nam and it worked good, maybe caused a few boys to get sick, but that’s war. Same thing is gonna happen here. We will kill every goddamned plant in the country if we have to. It’s worth it to prevent more of our people from getting hooked on their goddamned drugs. These Latins are trying to have a war against us, and that’s why they are sending the dope to our country, to make us weak and take us over. I for one, am gonna make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Before I lost him to the Jamaican night, I asked if he felt that his job was dangerous.

“Oh hell yes it is,” he said earnestly. “They shoot at us; they string up steel cables to try to catch us. We lose planes and copters. Pentagon doesn’t let anybody talk about it out loud. Happened recently. Two guys down; still alive on the ground. We knew where they were but goddamn- try getting anywhere fast in that jungle. By the time we got to ’em, FARC had been there first. Cut them up while they were still alive I reckon, blasted their heads open, stole their maps and identification. It’s a real war, all right. But we will win, even if we have to spray the whole continent to do it.”Local grower checking his small coca plants in Putumayo province.

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