President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva signed a law Monday that will allow Brazil to shoot down aircraft smuggling drugs across its borders. The controversial law was passed by the Brazilian Senate six years ago, but had languished awaiting a presidential signatures. It will go into effect in 90 days.
Brazilian Defense Minister Jose Viegas told Reuters such a law was necessary to prevent smugglers from flying drugs through or to Brazil. Although not a major drug producer, except for marijuana, most of which is destined for the domestic market, Brazil is the world's number two cocaine consumer, behind the United States. The trade in cocaine has helped fuel the rise of violent drug gangs, or "commands" who dominate large areas of the slums of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
According to Viegas, more than 4,000 unregistered small aircraft are flying over the Amazon rain forest, an area larger than the continental United States.
Under the law, Brazilian fighter pilots would shoot down suspected drug trafficking planes only as a "last resort" after a series of steps had already been taken. The fighters would shoot at planes only if they refused to identify themselves, failed to respond to warning shots, and refused to land, at which point they would be "considered hostile and subject to destruction," the law says. Planes would not be shot down over population centers and only over "routes presumably used by drug traffickers."
The notion of shooting down unarmed civilian aircraft was never popular in Brazil, and the killing of American missionary Veronica Bowers and her infant child in 2001 when their plane was shot down over the Amazon by the Peruvian Air Force working with US CIA spotters, made the matter a dead letter for several years (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/183/coca1.shtml). But now, even though US-sponsored shoot down programs remain on hold, Lula has signed the bill into law. Ironically, according to Reuters, the US State Department has warned Brazil that anti-drug assistance could be jeopardized if Brazil does not follow adequate safety precautions to ensure innocent planes aren't shot down. The US currently shares with Brazil information about the departures and courses of suspect planes.