Could the State Department’s antidrug contractors in South America possibly be dabbling in narcotics trafficking? A key part of the US’s $1.3 billion contribution to Plan Colombia–the scheme that will supposedly expedite the end of Colombia’s civil war–calls for the use of private contractors (as opposed to actual US military assets) to fly airborne missions against both the fields that grow coca and poppy and the labs that process them. While some contractors, like Aviation Development Corporation of Montgomery, Alabama, fly surveillance missions for the CIA, those that fly on retainer for other US government agencies are a bit more expansive in their missions.
Consulting giant DynCorp’s private pilots in the Andes fly everything from fixed-wing fumigation runs to helicopter-borne interdiction missions ferrying troops into hot spots. If you take DynCorp’s word for it, any notion of the organization’s being involved in drug trafficking is ludicrous. “Whether or not you believe this, we are a very ethical company,” said a senior DynCorp official, who insisted on being quoted off the record. “We take steps to make sure the people we hire are ethical.”
Yet the existence of a document that The Nation recently obtained (under the Freedom of Information Act) from the Drug Enforcement Administration–combined with the unwillingness of virtually any US or Colombian government agency to elaborate on the document–has some in Washington and elsewhere wondering if, like virtually every other entity charged with fighting the drug war, DynCorp might have a bad apple or two in its barrel. According to a monthly DEA intelligence report from last year, officers of Colombia’s National Police force intercepted and opened, on May 12, 2000, a US-bound Federal Express package at Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport. The parcel “contained two (2) small bottles of a thick liquid” that “had the same consistency as motor oil.” The communiqué goes on to report that the liquid substance “tested positive for heroin” and that the “alleged heroin laced liquid weighed approximately 250 grams.” (Freebase heroin, it bears noting, is soluble in motor oil, and can therefore be extracted without much trouble.)
But perhaps the most intriguing piece of information in the DEA document is the individual to whom it reports that the package belonged: an unnamed employee of DynCorp, who was sending the parcel to the company’s Andean operations headquarters at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. More interesting still is the reluctance of DynCorp and the government to provide substantial details in support of their contention that this situation isn’t really what it seems.
According to DynCorp spokeswoman Janet Wineriter,the viscous liquid that the Colombians tested was not, in fact, laced with heroin; it was simply “oil samples of major aircraft components” that DynCorp technicians are required to take and send to the US “on a periodic basis.” Explaining that the drug test was conducted “with apparently faulty equipment” that produced “an incorrect reading,” Wineriter could not specify what testing procedures or equipment were used. She identified her source for the explanation as Charlene A. Wheeless, DynCorp’s Vice President for Corporate Communications.
Unable to cite any source other than Wheeless (“I’m assuming when someone passes along this information that it’s accurate”), Wineriter told The Nation to call the Colombian National Police and the State Department for further details. The State Department liaison with DynCorp did not return phone calls, and when the Colombian National Police in Bogota were contacted, an official informed The Nation that the CNP would not comment on the matter, referring all queries to the DEA. A DEA spokesman in Washington said the matter was not a DEA case, and referred calls to the US Embassy in Bogota.