By Roberto Suro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday , March 13, 2000 ; A01
A key element of the drug war in Colombia is faltering because U.S.
surveillance flights over major cocaine-producing regions
have declined by two-thirds over the past year, according to administration officials.
The near disappearance of U.S. radar planes from Andean skies severely
erodes the ability of U.S. forces to spot smugglers
flying low over the jungle and direct intercept missions by South American warplanes.
In Peru those intercepts proved highly successful, helping drive down
Peruvian coca production by two-thirds between 1995
and 1999, according to Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
For want of such simple equipment as fire trucks and navigational beacons,
the interdiction effort has barely gotten underway
over an area of southwestern Colombia, which took up the slack from Peru. Colombia doubled its coca production during the
same 1995-99 period to an estimated 520 tons last year (twice U.S. annual consumption). That burgeoning cocaine trade
finances an anti-government insurgency.
Moreover, in Peru drug traffickers are resurgent because of the decline
in surveillance and interdiction, U.S. and Latin
American officials said.
That decline is the result of diplomatic setbacks, friction between
Congress and the Clinton administration, Pentagon infighting
and the competing demands of other military operations, the officials said.
Restoring aerial surveillance is "absolutely critical" to U.S. anti-drug
initiatives in South America, Marine Gen. Charles E.
Wilhelm, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom), recently told Congress. "I am in urgent need of
help on the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance side," Wilhelm said.
Wilhelm said he had reduced SouthCom to the lowest readiness status
for those functions, meaning that it could not be
expected to carry out its assigned missions.
The $1.6 billion package of counter-narcotics aid for Colombia working
its way though Congress includes only minor
provisions to boost surveillance flights and does nothing to deliver what Wilhelm says he needs most: E-3 AWACS, the Air
Force's largest and most sophisticated radar plane. "Those are the long-reach, long-look airplanes that we need to do the job in
the deep source zone," Wilhelm said.
The nation's 30 AWACS are in such heavy demand elsewhere that none are
permanently assigned to SouthCom and
temporary tours have become increasingly rare since the air campaign in Kosovo last spring.
"We are just way too stretched out between the Balkans, Iraq and North
Korea to commit these assets to drug interdiction in
South America," said a senior Air Force official.
Concerned that the Pentagon underestimates the importance of the drug
war, McCaffrey wrote Defense Secretary William S.
Cohen last month warning that weakened capabilities in Latin America could jeopardize the Colombia effort. The retired army
general asked for a commitment to rebuild surveillance capacities, according to senior officials.
While declining to discuss the letter, McCaffrey said in an interview
that "our ability to get into the Andean ridge has dwindled
to about zero." The White House drug official said he had made it known throughout the administration that "I think we have to
get going on this, and if we don't, we face a potential disaster within three or four years."
Surveillance flights are essential "because we can't go in there and
fight this ourselves. The best thing we can give these
countries is good intelligence about the source zones so they can get in there and do it themselves, but since last May, that has
not been possible," a senior administration official said.
Last May, U.S. military forces and law enforcement agencies abandoned
Howard Air Base in Panama and lost the use of the
long runways and first-class maintenance and supply facilities that for decades had supported U.S. air operations throughout
Latin America and the Caribbean. Recognizing its importance to counter-narcotic efforts, the Panamanian government initially
indicated a willingness to let Howard continue operating after other U.S. installations were closed when the United States
ceded control of the Panama Canal. But early last year, the Panamanians unexpectedly insisted that U.S. forces leave Howard.
More than 2,000 flights a year had been taking off from Howard on drug-related
missions, including surveillance flights that
allowed Peruvian authorities to target coca fields for eradication and to intercept airplanes carrying cocaine from production
labs to embarkation points for shipment to the United States.
Just as the United States planned to shift the surveillance strategy
from Peru to Colombia, it found itself obliged to seek a
replacement for Howard. Concluding that no single facility could do the job, Southern Command and the State Department
tried to fill the gap by borrowing space at several airfields.
In recent months, Customs Service radar planes and Air National Guard
F-16s have flown out of airports on Curacao and
Aruba, two islands in the southern Antilles, to track smugglers crossing the Caribbean in boats or airplanes.
Surveillance of the cocaine-producing regions in Colombia, Peru and
Bolivia was to be based out of a military airfield in Manta,
Ecuador--a Pacific port roughly midway between the coca-growing regions in Colombia and Peru.
"From Manta and only from Manta can we reach down and cover the deep
southern portion of the source zone," said Wilhelm,
promoting the Colombia aid package on Capitol Hill.
But the airfield, which had been a training base for Ecuadorian military
helicopter pilots, lacked even basic maintenance,
storage, safety and navigational facilities and the runway was in disrepair and too short for big jets such as AWACS.
Republican leaders in Congress last year refused to authorize funding
for initial improvements at Manta, arguing that the Clinton
administration had mishandled the negotiations for Howard and failed to secure a long-term agreement with Ecuador for use of
SouthCom found funds to make patchwork repairs on the Manta runway after
a short-term pact was reached last April and it
opened last summer. But only one airplane at a time has been able to use Manta because it lacked a fire truck and other safety
equipment. The surveillance aircraft, all small, short-range models, operate only in daylight because Manta lacks basic
"The narcos are smart enough to fly at night and so we have not been
able to accomplish much on that front," said an
A long-term agreement was reached with Ecuador at the end of last year,
and the Air Force is due to have the safety and
navigation equipment in place by the middle of next month, nearly a year after they were first requested.
Addressing the reluctance to make even a minor investment in Manta,
a senior Air Force official said, "Look, we get asked to
do everything, and when this one came through the door and we had to do it with our own money, there was a feeling of 'Hey,
why shouldn't the Navy or somebody else take care of it?' "
The Colombian counter-narcotics package before Congress includes a request
to spend $38 million in fiscal 2001 on
reinforcing and lengthening the runways at Manta so they can handle AWACS and the tankers that allow them to fly long
missions. Even if the work is completed, the aircraft may not be available.
"At this point the entire fleet of AWACS is committed to missions where
Americans are in harm's way or where there is a high
threat of conflict, and so if any planes go to Manta on a regular basis, someone is going to have to decide whether it is Iraq or
Korea or someplace else that has to give them up," the senior Air Force official said.
In the meantime, McCaffrey, Wilhelm and others are worried about new
threats in Colombia and the erosion of gains in Peru.
For more than a year, the Peruvian government has been complaining that the lack of U.S. surveillance has crippled its air
interdiction program, according to senior officials. As a result, the Peruvians say, the powerful deterrent effect of the "you fly,
you die" campaign has worn off and cocaine traffickers are back in the air.