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.

It took six days for the embassy to produce a terse, 143-word response to The Nation‘s queries–a response that echoed, but did not mirror, DynCorp’s account. The embassy did confirm that the vials of oil are “routinely shipped to DynCorp facilities at Patrick AFB for analysis related to proper maintenance” of aircraft, and confirmed that “several aircraft motor oil samples” were confiscated by Colombian police who used “NARCOTEX equipment [and] detected the presence of heroin in unspecified amounts.” Unlike Dyncorp, the embassy did not blame the test results on a false positive caused by faulty equipment; what’s odd is that the embassy has no idea what ultimately became of the seized oil. “The samples seized at the airport were sent to the CNP’s Forensic Institute for further analysis, but the CNP did not subsequently pursue the matter with the U.S. Embassy or DynCorp personnel in Colombia,” the embassy said, adding that the embassy has “asked the CNP to clarify the status of any investigation of this matter.”

Many questions remain about the CNP interception of the DynCorp package in Bogota last year. While there’s nothing unusual about sending aircraft oil samples to DynCorp’s main base in the US, DynCorp’s assertion thatpoorly calibrated drug testing equipment caused a false positive has experts scratching their heads–as does the US Embassy’s description of the testing itself.

When asked to specify what, exactly, “NARCOTEX equipment” is and what testing methodologies it uses, an embassy official responded that he had “no idea.” A veteran DEA agent said he had “never heard of anything called NARCOTEX,” and after a hard round of research, staffers at the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Drug Recognition Experts Section told The Nation they couldn’t find evidence of any drug testing technology with the name. And according to a number of scientists with backgrounds in chemical testing and opiate research, the information provided by DynCorp and the US Embassy in Bogota isn’t nearly enough to ascertain independently just what was in those bottles seized by the Colombian police.

Peter Facchini, a University of Calgary biochemist and leading expert on opiates, notes that any number of several types of tests may or may not have been conducted, and without knowing specifics or lab protocols, it’s impossible to render a scientific conclusion. But, he and others add,it’s unlikely that any testing apparatus would errantly identify something as heroin in motor oil. Drug tests for coca and opiates look for the presence of alkaloids–and alkaloids, says Facchini, aren’t naturally present in fuel oils. “I can’t imagine any reason there should be even a trace of an alkaloid in aircraft oil or motor oil–that doesn’t make any sense at all,” he says.

Thomas Tullius, chair of Boston University’s chemistry department (and author of the study refuting the US government’s claim of possessing reliable evidence that the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan was producing nerve gas), also finds DynCorp’s explanation curious. “Maybe there is something in motor oil that might cross-react, but I would be surprised to find that true,” says Tullius. “This is like the al-Shifa thing–people aren’t telling you precise methods used or numbers found.”

And according to Adam Isacson, senior associate and Latin America specialist at the Center for International Policy, DynCorp and State’s handling of the situation doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. “It sounds like they have no idea what the outcome of this case was, and it doesn’t look like they have much of a burning desire to find out what happened,” observes Isacson. “They have an interest in sweeping this under the rug. They don’t want anything to derail Plan Colombia, and key to that is the willingness to let contractors operate in almost complete secrecy. Anything that raises questions is to be avoided like the plague–they don’t want people to think about DynCorp, because then people might actually look at the whole policy.”

Which is what critics of Plan Colombia are hoping will happen over the next few weeks. On June 27, the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee began crafting next year’s overseas budget package, which includes funding for the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, a measure that essentially expands Plan Colombia to neighboring Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil and Panama. While the Bush Administration has requested more money for development assistance, the bulk of the money still goes to military assistance (71 percent, in Colombia’s case), and there is continued financing for the fumigation and manual eradication of coca and poppy crops that DynCorp carries out under contract for State.

A number of amendments have been offered to the appropriations bill that would do everything from imposing a moratorium on fumigation to reining in US military spending in the Andes, and activists are hopeful that some of these amendments may actually pass. While the Republican ranks are full of proud drug warriors, even some conservatives–such as House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton–are growing increasingly leery of DynCorp’s operations; Burton is reportedly so irked by what he sees as lack of the contractor accountability that he’s considering taking legislative action himself. Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, meanwhile, is championing a bill that would impose a ban on the use of private military contractors like DynCorp, citing everything from State’s intransigence in answering Congressional queries to the possibility of the US’s getting more involved in a foreign war that is conducted largely out of the public eye.

“All these concerns reinforce my views that the US should immediately terminate its contract with DynCorp and all other private companies conducting sensitive, military-like operations in the Andean Region,”says Schakowsky.”Reports that DynCorp employees have been implicated in drug trafficking, the very thing they are paid to help prevent, only strengthens my conviction that outsourcing is the wrong policy. It’s frustrating for reporters, but outrageous for members of Congress not to have access to information about US involvement in the Andean region and how taxpayer dollars are being spent–most of the information we have is from investigative news reports that raise more questions than answers.”