BY TIM JOHNSON
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
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
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
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,
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
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
guerrillas from the air.
The air force now has four operational Black Hawk helicopters
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
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,''
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,
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
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