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Drug Agents Overturn Plane, Grab Pilot By Mistake

February 29, 1988

MIAMI (AP) _ An unsuspecting pilot wound up with his face in the dirt, M-16s pointed at his head and his ruined plane upside down on the runway after drug agents mistook him for a cocaine smuggler.

Gustavo Viera, a Miami accountant, has received an apology from Vice President George Bush’s anti-drug task force, the Drug Enforcement Admimistration and the U.S. Customs Service.

However, he said Monday he had received no compensation and plans to file a claim against the government.

Viera said he did not see or hear the Customs Service helicopter that followed him to the airport, and worries what would happen if the service’s controversial proposal to shoot down suspected traffickers is adopted.

″Had that been in effect, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today,″ said Viera. ″When you’re in one of these airplanes and the engine is loud and they shoot a warning, you’re not going to hear it.″

The incident occurred July 9 when Viera flew his Piper Cherokee - bought only three weeks before - over Biscayne Bay. He then headed for a small airport south of Miami.

A subsequent letter from William Rosenblatt, an assistant commissioner in the Customs Service enforcement office, explained what happened next.

Rosenblatt said Customs Service radar had lost a suspected trafficker in flight, then picked up Viera’s plane.

″It was incorrectly assumed that your aircraft was in fact the suspect,″ Rosenblatt wrote.

According to friends of Viera who witnessed the incident, a Customs Service Blackhawk helicopter followed Viera’s plane as it touched down at the Kendall Glider Port, but stayed behind him. Viera said it was impossible to see or hear the helicopter in that position.

″When (Viera) was turning left to get out of the runway, presumably the pilot of the helicopter thought Gus was trying to run away,″ said Rene Betancourt. ″He made a maneuver with a blast of the prop, and turned Gus’s plane upside down.″

Viera first thought his nose gear had collapsed, then he realized the danger he was in.

″I’m upside down on my runway, fuel was pouring out and the thing was about to blow,″ said Viera. Then he saw the helicopter land beside him and several men rush toward his plane.

″I thought they were going to rescue me,″ he said. Instead, as he pleaded with them to pull him out of the plane, someone smashed in his window and hit him in the back of the head, he said.

The next thing he knew he was lying face down with a foot on his back. Two Bahamian agents who accompanied the Customs team were pointing their M-16s at his head, said Viera.

″They never identified themselves as Customs agents, they never read me my rights and they illegally searched my plane,″ said Viera. He was held for about 45 minutes until computer checks established the error.

The Viera wrote to Customs and the DEA, but only began to receive apologies when he finally wrote Bush’s task force.

A letter from Howard Gehring, director of the task force’s national narcotics border-interdiction system, said ″any inconvenience that this incident has caused is unfortunate.″

Rosenblatt also apologized in a letter.

″As a resident of Dade County, Fla., you are in a position to view firsthand the drug-related violence that occurs almost on a daily basis,″ said Rosenblatt, adding that the danger results in actions which ″might seem excessive.″

Viera said the company which insured his plane paid off quickly and he has bought a new plane.

Roger Garland, chief of the Customs air branch at Homestead, said as far as he knew, the Viera incident was the first of its kind.

″Normally, we wouldn’t even do that to a bad guy,″ said Garland.

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