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More Latin American Air Forces Prepare to Resume Shooting Down Narco-Trafficking Aircraft

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj was a Visiting Fellow at IDSA. He is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security.
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  • October 05, 2016

    On 20 August 2015, Peru’s Congress passed legislation that would allow its military to shoot down aircraft suspected of narcotics trafficking, thus resuming a policy that was discontinued after 2001 when a tragic mistake led to the killing of a missionary and her daughter.1 With this action, Peru has become the latest in a series of Latin American countries that have opted for this extreme step to curb the endemic problem of aerial narcotics smuggling. Indeed, no fewer than nine countries in the region -  Brazil, Chile, Honduras, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela have adopted this step though not all have made use of this option.2

    As might be expected, this development is extremely controversial, with the United States government temporarily halting cooperation with Honduras after that country shot down two suspected narcotics carrying aircraft in 2012, neither of which was ever subsequently confirmed to have been carrying narcotics. To insulate itself from dependence on US radar coverage, Honduras purchased three new radar sets before enacting new legislation in 2014 to resume aggressive interceptions which once again led to a withdrawal of American support.3

    Given the risk of drawing the ire of the United States and the even more daunting prospect of shooting down innocent aircraft, the question arises as to why Latin American countries are so intent on pursuing this course of action. The answer to this question can partly be found in the fact that no less than 20% of all cocaine trafficking within the area is undertaken by air.4 However, this, in and of itself, should not warrant such an extreme step.

    The fact is that that narcotics traffic from Latin America by air is increasing by the day. as the aerial route has become a preferred method of transport between Latin America and Africa where from it is sent onwards to Europe and Asia. Transport of cocaine between Latin America and Africa was traditionally via sea in container ships or in private yachts. The potential to ship large quantities of cocaine through this method made the maritime route the preferred method of transit.5 However, as interdiction efforts at sea have become more effective, the cocaine smugglers have switched tactics to using second-hand cargo aircraft to deliver cocaine to their West African confederates.6

    A wide range of used aircraft, available for as little as US$275,000 for a four-engined DC-8 jet, can be obtained and there is no shortage of pilots willing to undertake these flights.7 As the airspace between Latin America and West Africa is almost completely bereft of radar cover and national radar networks in most of West Africa are patchy at best, it is relatively simple for narco-flights to evade detection. In one publicised incident, for example, a Boeing 727 was set alight and abandoned after it failed to take-off at a makeshift airfield following a delivery of cocaine from Venezuela to Gao in Mali.,8

    Of late, Venezuela and Brazil are beginning to emerge as major places of embarkation for narcotics bound for Europe via the West Africa-. The surge began in 2004 with seizures of 46 metric tonnes of cocaine being reported between 2005 and 2008.9 This coincided with a decision of the Venezuelan government in 2005 to suspend cooperation with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) due to unfortunate political differences between the Chavez administration and the US Government.10

    This led to an upsurge in cocaine trafficking out of Venezuela where corrupt law enforcement and military personnel, porous borders with Colombia and apparent government indifference have contributed to this trend. In the case of Brazil, the combination of porous borders with three major cocaine producing countries (Bolivia, Colombia and Peru) and a poorly patrolled coastline are combined with a thriving legitimate trade with West Africa thus facilitating the smuggling of cocaine by subterfuge, corruption or coercion of legal traders.11 South Africa has emerged as one of several preferred transshipment points for cocaine emanating from Brazil, taking its place alongside such nations as Angola, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.12 It should be noted that South Africa has also become a preferred route for Afghan heroin.13 Almost completely unmonitored airspace renders air transport particularly attractive for smugglers.

    Having taken this decision, are the Latin American military establishments in a position o provide the requisite quality of evidence to ensure that unfortunate mistakes do not recur? The answer must be a qualified “no”. While decades of fighting the narcotics trade have created strong local intelligence networks, these are by no means foolproof and radar surveillance remains problematic. Even the advanced SIVAM radar network deployed by Brazil to provide surveillance over the Amazon region, has several exploitable gaps.14 Several air forces in the region are also incapable of conducting even basic intercept operations owing to a lack of suitable aircraft – Paraguay being a prime example. Combined with the inherent defects of the law enforcement and military forces of the region, it is therefore doubtful that any air force in the region could be certain of the mala fide contents of any aircraft.

    Shoot-Downs of Suspected Narcotics Trafficking Aircraft 1983-2013

    Date Air Force Aircraft Weapon Victim Mission Result
    9Mar83 Honduran Mystere B2 30mm DC-3 Drugs Shot down
    18Jun85 Ecuadorian Mirage F1JA 30mm twin engined Beechcraft Drugs Shot down
    1987 Honduran C.101 238 30mm C-47 Drugs Shot down
    1992 Honduran     Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    1992 Honduran     Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    4Nov94 Peruvian AT-27 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    27Jun95 Peruvian AT-27 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    28Jun95 Peruvian AT-27 Maneuver Light A/C Drugs Crashed
    14Jul95 Peruvian AT-27 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    21Jul95 Peruvian AT-27 20mm Cessna Drugs Shot down
    7Jul96 Peruvian AT-27 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    25Mar97 Peruvian AT-27 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    Mar97 Peruvian AT-27 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    Aug97 Peruvian AT-27 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    1998 Colombian A-37 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    1998 Colombian A-37 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    1998 Colombian A-37 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    1998 Colombian A-37 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    8Feb99 Colombian A-37 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    Aug99 Colombian A-37 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    Aug99 Colombian A-37 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    1Jun00 Colombian A-37 20mm Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    18Jul00 Peru Su-25   Light A/C Drugs Shot down
    20Apr01 Peru A-37 7.62mm Cessna 185 Mis-ID'd Shot down
    14Apr03 Honduras AT-27 7.62mm Aerocommander 500 Drugs Shot down
    12Oct13 Venezuelan F-16A ? twin engined Drugs Shot down
    12Oct13 Venezuelan F-16A ? twin engined Drugs Shot down

    Source: Air Combat Information Group

    Nonetheless, despite these shortcomings, there have been multiple downings of suspected narcotics transport aircraft as shown in the table above. Aircraft such as the AT-27 Tucano and the A-37 Dragonfly have seen extensive service in an interceptor role where their excellent low speed performance has enabled them to engage aircraft that could create problems for faster interceptor aircraft. The problem with faster aircraft was graphically demonstrated on 17th September 2015 when a Venezuelan Su-30MKV crashed while trying to engage a slow flying suspected narcotics aircraft near the Colombian border, killing both crewmen.15

    It seems, however, that despite the evident shortcomings and limitations of this strategy, Latin American air forces seem to be intent on pursuing this course of action. Whether they actually believe that this interception policy will have a tangible impact on the narcotics trade or this is merely a ploy for domestic political consumption is a matter of debate. Whatever the reason for the decision, one can expect a sharp rise in both interceptions and the potential of more unfortunate accidents.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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