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The State Department’s Air Wing and Counternarcotics Programs in South America

In the early 1990s, at the height of the “War on Drugs,” David Lyon took a break from consular work and accepted an assignment as the Director of the Bureau of International Narcotics Matters (INM/T—now INL for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement). Over the course of his three years with INM/T, Lyon was responsible for the State Department’s Air Wing and for supporting counternarcotics initiatives in several South American countries on both the local and federal levels. While working closely with the Peruvian and Bolivian militaries, Lyon oversaw operations aimed at hindering the transport of cocaine throughout South America, and damaging the large fields of opium poppies grown by the local cartels with the intent to sell internationally. During his career with the State Department, Lyon served throughout the world; his career culminated with an ambassadorship in Suva, Fiji from 2003 to 2005. Lyon was interviewed by Charles Stuart “Stu” Kennedy in December 2010.

Read David Lyon’s full oral history HERE.  

“Visiting the family members of the Americans who died flying for me may have been the most emotionally draining moments of my time in the Foreign Service…”

Collaboration between the United States and Peru in efforts against the illicit drug trade: “We had two primary goals. The first was to provide aviation support to on-the-ground counternarcotics programs, whether by aerial eradication of opium poppies, as in Guatemala,… or transporting and protecting indigenous personnel who were ripping out coca plants in Bolivia and Peru (neither country allowed aerial spraying) and assisting DEA cocaine interdiction efforts. Our second objective was to build up host nation counter-narcotics capabilities, as INM had done in Colombia. We worked with the Bolivian Air Force and the Peruvian and Guatemalan national police forces, training pilots and helping them establish logistics and maintenance hubs and procedures.”

“We were operating in the cartels’ backyards with the additional complication being that our primary operating area in Peru. We essentially operated out of a military Forward Operating Base at a village called Sta. Lucia, with a walled perimeter, guard towers and usually a company each of Peruvian Army and paramilitary police providing security. I didn’t think I have ever paid so much attention to an initial security briefing as I did at that base, especially when I learned that my job during an attack was to carry mortar rounds to one of our defensive emplacements, the first time I’d ever been tasked with something quite so kinetic, and then, if we were overrun, I should make it over the west wall so I could float down the river hopefully to safety.”


“During my three years in INM/T, we had three helicopter crashes, two of them with fatalities. The first was due to engine problems, with the Peruvian pilot handling a hard landing well enough to avoid personnel injuries, but considerable damage to his helicopter. That night, despite a near total lack of visibility, the Peruvian Army insisted on air coverage for their platoon guarding the site, and one of our Hueys struck a high tree and crashed, killed the three Americans and two Peruvians on board. A year later, also on the Upper Huallaga Valley, a 60-year old contractor pilot—at the time we were having to reply principally on Vietnam vets—passed out while doing emergency evasion training and crashed his Huey, killing both people on board. Visiting the family members of the Americans who died flying for me may have been the most emotionally draining moments of my time in the Foreign Service, though all understood that their loved ones had died while doing dangerous work that they loved in service to their country.”

Drafted by Tyler Ventura



     BA in History, Swarthmore College                                                                                               1969-1973

Entered Foreign Service                                                                                                           1974

     Manila, Philippines—Consul                                                                                                            1980-1984

     Office of Transnational Affairs, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters                         1991-1994

     Suva, Fiji—Ambassador                                                                                                                    2003-2005