The Miami Herald
February 11, 2000
Colombia's war on drugs goes airborne
U.S. aid to improve firepower


 NEIVA, Colombia -- Taking a cue from neighboring Peru, Colombia says it will
 force down -- or shoot down -- more aircraft suspected of carrying narcotics.

 The air force has already intercepted 36 suspicious airplanes in the past two
 years, shooting six out of the sky and destroying the rest after they landed,
 Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez said. The pace will now quicken, he

 Colombia is gaining more air power -- including helicopter gunships -- that
 Ramirez said will help it fight drug smugglers and leftist guerrillas.

 ``Air strength will mark the difference in the war against both [drug traffickers and
 rebels] in the future,'' Ramirez said.

 For decades, the air mobility of Colombia's 110,000-member police and
 146,000-member armed forces has been severely deficient.

 Colombia is 54 times bigger than El Salvador in territory, but it has never had the
 110 or so helicopters that the Salvadoran military had during that country's civil
 war in the late 1980s.

 The lack of air mobility meant that isolated columns of Colombian soldiers could
 be overrun by guerrilla columns, something that happened repeatedly from 1996
 to 1998. A lack of helicopters made it hard for reinforcements to arrive at combat
 sites in time.

 Currently, the armed forces have around 90 helicopters. Until four years ago, lack
 of spare parts permitted only 35 percent of the fleet to be airworthy at any given
 time, military officers said, far lower than world military standards.

 When a system of obligatory public war bonds was imposed in 1996, some
 proceeds were used by the air force to improve the airworthiness of the fleet to
 around 65 percent, said Maj. Gen. Henry Medina Uribe, head of the War College,
 although that rate has fallen slightly.

 The number of helicopters may soon soar. A $1.6 billion U.S. aid package that
 President Clinton seeks for Colombia would provide the nation with 30 Black
 Hawk helicopters and 33 UH-1N choppers, known as Super Hueys. The
 helicopters would be lightly armed, serving mainly to transport counternarcotics
 battalions, authorities say.


 Even so, Colombia is improving its ability to cast a hail of high-caliber lead on
 guerrillas from the air.

 The air force now has four operational Black Hawk helicopters outfitted as
 gunships, and five more being equipped with the same high-caliber machine guns
 and small rockets, Ramirez said.

 ``Undoubtedly, the balance is changing,'' said Medina, of the War College. ``And it
 will change more if the 30 Black Hawks and the UH-1Ns arrive as part of the aid
 package . . . It is not the definitive solution but it is positive.''

 Other experts noted that insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
 Colombia (FARC) are already reacting, using primitive anti-aircraft tactics.

 ``They shoot up a `curtain of lead,' '' Medina said. Instead of firing directly at
 oncoming helicopters, ``they throw up a curtain that the helicopter must pass
 through.'' One helicopter was recently hit 27 times but kept flying.

 Beneficiaries of largess by the U.S. Congress, Colombia's national police have a
 fleet of at least 47 helicopters, three of them Black Hawks bristling with machine
 guns that were inaugurated at a base at Neiva last week.

 The armed helicopters protect crop dusters as they spray herbicide on coca and
 poppy fields, which are often guarded by well-armed FARC rebels.


 While aerial eradication remains a pillar of both U.S. and Colombian
 counternarcotics policy, officials say a more aggressive shoot-down policy
 against suspicious aircraft could diminish the threat that coca farmers may rise
 up in anger at their destroyed crops.

 ``I think that the policy of air interdiction is the most efficient by far,'' said
 Ramirez, the defense minister.

 Farmers may be able to grow coca, and traffickers may be able to process it into
 cocaine, he said, but if smugglers can't get it out of the country, coca prices will

 That's what happened in Peru, when that nation's air force began to use U.S.
 electronic intelligence to identify drug-laden aircraft in 1991. By mid-1998, Peru
 had shot down or destroyed on the ground 98 aircraft.

 ``The air bridge between Peru and Colombia has been destroyed,'' Ana Maria
 Salazar, deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement policy, said
 in late November. ``Instead of 1,000 flights a year, we're down to 150. Minimal.''

 With U.S. assistance, Peru and Colombia both devised procedures to prevent the
 downing of innocent civilian aircraft -- and subsequent legal risks.


 Before actually firing on a suspicious aircraft, a senior U.S. official said, ``You
 radio, you wave, you waggle your wings and you shoot across the bow.'' He
 added that the shoot-down policy has a dramatic impact. ``If pilots think they are
 going to die, they don't want to fly.''

 While Colombian officials say they are eager to attack more planes, they are
 hobbled by a dramatic decrease in the U.S. surveillance flights over Peru, Bolivia
 and Colombia that provide data to help track suspicious aircraft.

 The number of Pentagon flight hours logged over the three countries fell 48
 percent -- from 2,092 to 1,090 -- between fiscal years 1998 and 1999, a U.S.
 General Accounting Office official, Jess T. Ford, told a House panel Jan. 27. Ford
 indicated that requests from the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command to the
 Pentagon for surveillance flights over Central, South America and the Caribbean
 were satisfied only 43 percent of the time in 1999.

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald