World News

Peru's Congress approves shooting down of narcotics planes

LIMA (Reuters) - Peru’s Congress unanimously passed legislation on Thursday that would allow the military to shoot down unauthorised aircraft suspected of smuggling narcotics, a policy banned in 2001 that the United States has opposed.

The measure aims to clamp down on a growing number of flights carrying cocaine cargos out of Peru. Peru and the United States estimate that most of the country’s cocaine is now sent abroad in small planes.

The opposition-introduced legislation passed with the votes of all 89 lawmakers present, including those of the ruling party.

President Ollanta Humala must sign the bill in order for it to become law. His government said in March that it might back the measure, even though it threatens joint anti-drug efforts with the United States and millions in aid.

The United States prohibited funding linked to shoot-down activities after a Peruvian military jet coordinating with the CIA fired at a plane carrying missionaries in 2001, killing a U.S. woman and her baby. Peru also banned the policy after the incident.

The U.S. embassy in Lima said it could not comment on the vote on Thursday.

U.S. officials have lobbied Peru to maintain the status quo, Peruvian authorities have said.

Peru is the world’s top cocaine producer, according to the U.S. State Department, which estimates that small planes moved up to 180 tonnes of cocaine from Peru in the first 10 months of 2014.

Peru has struggled to choke the “air bridge” smuggling route that links its coca-growing regions with distributors in Bolivia who later move cargos to Brazil, Europe and Asia, U.S. and Peruvian officials say.

Authorities in Peru have blown up dozens of illegal airstrips only to find they are later patched up or built anew.

Officials say they can do little to stop the flights without the threat of force.

Congressman Carlos Tubino, the bill’s author, said Peru cannot allow traffickers to continue to defy its laws. He put the number of narco flights at 600 per year.

“Just today there were two flights!” Tubino said.

Cocaine also leaves Peru on boats in the Pacific and in suitcases or the stomachs of drug smugglers on commercial flights.

Ricardo Soberon, Humala’s former anti-drug tsar, said resuming the shoot-down policy would likely trigger a surge of smuggling by foot and car.

“There is going to be big demand for manpower to move small quantities of drugs” that could boost support for traffickers, said Soberon.

Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Ken Wills