Narcotics flights swarming Colombia
Suspension of U.S. radar opens skies to traffickers
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Drug smuggling airplanes have been swarming into Colombia since U.S. radar planes stopped assisting with air interdictions after the mistaken downing of an American missionary's plane in Peru, according to the commander of the Colombian air force.
Ten to 12 flights a week are dashing in from Brazil and Venezuela, ``significantly higher'' than before U.S. radar assistance was halted April 20, said Gen. Héctor Fabio Velasco. On May 1-3 alone, 13 flights were spotted, he added.
"The narcos are trying to take out as much cocaine as they can
now that they know the Americans have suspended their operations,'' Velasco
told The Herald in an
Since each aircraft -- usually a single-engine airplane -- can carry at least 500 pounds of cocaine, the May 1-3 flights alone could add up to three tons of cocaine exported from Colombia, said one U.S. counter-narcotics expert.
Velasco said he relayed the alarming figures recently to U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson in hopes of quickly persuading Washington to resume providing radar-tracking data to Colombia's air force.
"What I told the ambassador was that they have to take into account -- I don't judge Peru, I don't know how they operate -- that we have been operating very responsibly to avoid accidents,'' Velasco said.
Washington stopped sharing radar tracks with Peru and Colombia after a CIA-run radar plane guided the Peruvian air force to the shoot-down of a small aircraft mistaken for a drug runner. An American missionary and her baby daughter were killed.
The accident caused an uproar in Washington, with some members
of Congress calling for a thorough reassessment of the tracking program
and the role of Aviation
Development Corp., the private firm contracted by the CIA to operate its Cessna Citation V surveillance jets.
A joint U.S.-Peruvian investigation of the shoot-down is expected to end next month, but U.S. officials are making no promises that the tracking program will be resumed.
"This is a very key issue for us to get right,'' Marine Gen. Peter Pace, head of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, said when asked last week when U.S. radar planes would start again to help Colombia.
"The decision is pending in Washington,'' added Patterson, who accompanied Pace to the graduation of the third Colombian army counter-narcotics battalion trained by U.S. Special Forces under a $1.3 billion aid package.
Velasco argued, however, that Colombia's air interdiction program
is different from Peru's -- more cautious and less reliant on U.S. radar
for the final phases of the
Colombia has used its own radar to continue interdicting suspected drug planes since April 20. Last week it forced three small aircraft carrying semi-processed coca base to land at military bases, he said. Velasco said Colombia has six ground-based radars around the nation, is planning to add two or three more and will soon receive two turbo-prop planes equipped with sophisticated F-16 radars for counter-drug surveillance.
But Colombia needs help quickly from the more powerful U.S. radar, he added, because Colombia's interceptor aircraft are based far from its borders and require the earliest warnings possible to be able to intercept more of the suspect planes.
Most of the smuggling flights spotted in the last month have been
landing in the far eastern jungles of Colombia, Velasco said, less than
150 miles from the borders of
Brazil and Venezuela to the east and Peru to the south.
The Colombian radars have maximum ranges of only 100-200 miles, he added, and the base for the air force's A-37, OV-10 and T-27 interceptors is in the town of Apiay, some 300 miles from the nearest frontier.
"The big U.S. radar planes, like the AWACs out over the Atlantic or over Peru, used to give us early warning of the incoming planes so that we could meet them at the borders,'' said Velasco. "Now, by the time we get out there most of the smugglers have landed and sometimes even left already.''
LESS RELIANCE ON U.S.
He added that because Colombia has enough radars for the latter phases of an interdiction -- shoot-down or force-down -- the air force relied less on CIA radar aircraft that also flew from Apiay.
The CIA Citation involved in the Peru incident was within sight of the missionaries' plane, using its radio to guide in the Peruvian A-37B interceptor that shot down the slow-flying single-engine Cessna with a burst from its machine guns.
"The big American planes help us in the initial phase -- that's what we're asking for -- but the second phase of the operation, the approach phase, is almost always totally ours,'' Velasco said.
Velasco said the CIA Citations that operated from Apiay had left the air base after the Peru incident. "They are gone now, very quiet,'' he said.
While repeatedly saying that he did not want to compare Colombia's air interdiction program with Peru's, Velasco also made it clear he considered Colombia's far more cautious when it comes to shooting down planes.
"We almost always get them on the ground . . . because we're much
more careful,'' he said, adding that his pilots had shot or forced down
23 planes since the
interdiction program began in 1998 and seized 17 on the ground.