The Peruvian officers mistakenly thought that the plane, flying from the Colombian border towards the city of Iquitos, 600 miles northeast of Lima, was ferrying drug-traffickers. Two of the passengers, an American missionary from the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE), Veronica "Roni" Bowers, and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, were killed instantly when bullets tore through the fuselage.
"We are extremely concerned about this incident, and profoundly lament the loss of human life. We demand that this incident be investigated until it is fully clarified," says Victor Arroya, executive director of the National Evangelical Council of Peru. "The public has a right to know what really happened."
Kevin Donaldson, pilot of the Cessna 185 floatplane, was able to make an emergency landing in the Amazon River, despite gunshot wounds to both legs. Veronica's husband, Jim Bowers and their six-year-old son, Cory, were unharmed.
"We were deeply shocked, scandalized," said Anglican Bishop William Godfrey, of Lima. "Who makes one group lord over someone else's life? To shoot down a plane is to condemn its occupants to death without giving them the benefit of the doubt."
The bishop added that it was essential that every effort be made to keep anything similar from happening in the future.
"It was a terrible mistake that must never be repeated," said Amparo Huaman, director of Peru Solidarity Forum, a U.S.-funded Catholic organization in Lima which provides extensive support to Catholic missionaries. "It is the duty of the Peruvian authorities to carry out an exhaustive investigation in order to discover what really happened."
There are conflicting reports about who is to blame. A U.S. surveillance plane, operated by three Central Intelligence Agency contract employees, was providing routine support last Friday morning and alerted the Peruvian air force to the presence of the Cessna, which they believed to be flying without a flight plan. The Baptist floatplane was flying over a jungle area rife with drug smugglers who frequently use clandestine landing strips and Amazon tributaries to pick up coca paste shipments.
A Peruvian A-37B jet went into immediate action. According to a Peruvian air force statement, the intercepting plane made every effort to communicate with the Cessna, using internationally recognized signals. As there was no response, it opened fire.
U.S. officials, however, have reportedly said they voiced objections and thought the Peruvians moved too fast. The Peruvian air force has promised to carry out an exhaustive investigation and said it "deeply regretted" the loss of life.
The pilot, Kevin Donaldson, who has been flying in the Iquitos area for more than a decade, said he had filed a flight plan, which was posted by the Baptist missionary group on a web page. Moreover, the plane's registration was clearly visible on the wing and tail, and the plane was known in the area. Donaldson said the fighter made no attempt at contact, and he received no response from the tower.
"It was an absurd, excessive use of force," said Bishop Godfrey. "If it had happened on the ground you would stop the vehicle, ask questions. You would not attack with heavy machinery."
Huaman added: "It is hard to believe that the flight verification is so superficial and puts people's lives at risk. There must be another way to combat drug trafficking."
Samuel Heim, an official in Peru for the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, said that the mission's work would continue, but he added: "We plan to sit down with Peruvian authorities to ensure that such a tragic accident never happens again." Both the Peruvian and the U.S. authorities had expressed a sincere desire to get to the bottom of the incident, he said. "The offer seems correct and cordial, and I hope that the investigation is as transparent as possible."
Heim said ABWE had about 50 people in Peru, including children. The vast majority were U.S. citizens, although some were Peruvians born to missionary parents. They worked in the jungle city of Iquitos, in the northern coastal area and in the southern city of Arequipa.
He said the work focused on "teaching the Bible and sharing with everyone the message that God has given us." The Bowers began working in Peru in 1994, travelling up and down the Amazon River in their houseboat, visiting isolated communities which had had little or no contact with Catholicism, the biggest church in Peru.
The Bowers' children were adopted, with Charity joining the family in December last year. Thirty-five-year-old Roni Bowers had dreamed of being a missionary since she was 13, and vowed to marry someone who was willing to follow the same path.
"The day we left [the U.S.] for Peru was such a joyous day for us," she wrote in a personal testimony.
"Now I choose to trust God fully. He is in control; he knows what is best. When we as believers get to heaven, we won't have to ask: 'Why?' It will be worth it all," she wrote.
Copyright © 2001 ENI.
The ABWE has many resources about the tragedy on its site, including photos, biographical sketches of Roni Bowers and others, links to media coverage, and other items.
"It was the unwillingness to assign moral culpability for our drug problems that, just as much as the Peruvian Air Force, killed 'Roni' Bower and her daughter," writes Roberto Rivera, a columnist for Charles Colson's Breakpoint radio program and Web site.
Other recent media coverage of the incident includes:
A mission interrupted | Before she became a casualty of the drug war, Veronica Bowers waged her own crusade from a houseboat on the Amazon River — Time (May 7, 2001)
'They are killing us!' | A Peruvian fighter jet mistakenly shoots down U.S. missionaries, raising new questions about the drug war. An inside story of one family's devastating loss — Newsweek (May 7, 2001)
A puff of smoke, and then chaos at 4,000 feet | Drug war over Peru — USA Today (Apr 30, 2001)
Missionary: Resume drug surveillance in Peru — Associated Press/USA Today (Apr. 30, 2001)
Divine intervention | In a flash, missionary Jim Bowers lost his wife and child. But not his faith. — The Washington Post (Apr. 30, 2001)
Mother, baby killed in Peru buried — AP (Apr 29, 2001)
Peru drug fight scrutinized — AP (Apr 28, 2001)
Forgiveness is theme at slain missionary's funeral — The Washington Post (Apr 28, 2001)
Remembering mother and child | Church mourns pair killed in Peru — Detroit Free Press (Apr 28, 2001)
Peruvians hold memorial service — AP (Apr 28, 2001)
U.S. missionary blames no one for Peru deaths — Reuters (Apr 28, 2001)
Missionary forgives Peruvian pilot for downing plane — Voice of America (Apr. 28, 2001)
Missionaries facing world of new perils | Hostage-takings, robberies among on-the-job risks — Chicago Tribune (Apr. 28, 2001)
Simple, devoted lives on the Amazon | Tragedy does not appear to have weakened the ardor of the five remaining American missionary families who troll the Amazon around Iquitos on their houseboats for weeks at a time, playing gospel music from loudspeakers like pied pipers playing for souls. — The New York Times (Apr. 28, 2001)
Missionaries are a daring, dauntless band inspired by faith | As a foreign correspondent in Peru, I was awed by the almost indescribable passion missionaries brought to their work. Georgie Anne Geyer, Universal Press Syndicate/Chicago Tribune (Apr. 27, 2001)
Peru missionaries face dangers | For the two dozen or so U.S. missionaries who work in northeastern Peru, it's a life of risks. — Associated Press (Apr. 27, 2001)
Pilots decry missionary downing | U.S. did not ratify U.N. provision protecting civilian aircraft — The Washington Post (Apr. 26, 2001)
For more media coverage, and other resources, see Yahoo's full coverage area.
Previous Christianity Today stories about Peru include:
Divorcing a Dictator | Evangelicals assess the bitter lessons of the Fujimori years. (Jan. 25, 2001)
Peru's Shining Path Still Taking Prisoners | As government shifts in turmoil, thousands of forced "accomplices" are still unfairly imprisoned. (Nov. 27, 2000)
Christian Human Rights Agency Burglarized in Peru | Stolen files contained information on more than 5,000 forced disappearances. (Nov. 15, 2000)
Peru's Churches Welcome Fujimori's Decision to Call New Election | After riots and videotapes of bribes, Peru pushes its current president for the opportunity to vote again. (Sept. 28, 2000)
Imprisoned Peruvian Army Colonel Denied Parole | Evangelical convicted of drug trafficking continues fight for justice as hope fades. (Sept. 1, 2000)
Peru's Christians Oppose Presidential Vow to End Pardons | More than 300 unjustly accused of terrorist involvement will remain in jail, say critics. (Dec. 16, 1999)
Imprisoned Evangelicals Dispute Accusations of Terrorism (Feb. 9, 1998)