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Counter-Narcotics from the Air: Operational Failures in Latin America

 

As drug traffickers have exploited recent technological and socio-economic developments to become the world’s most elusive illicit traders, governments committed to countering their activities have resorted to measures that require the pinnacle of their technological capability. Air power has become a crucial component in joint US-Latin American counter-narcotics operations in the last thirty years, particularly within the supply-side policies of drug eradication and interdiction. However, its implementation has seen various drawbacks that serve as valuable lessons for its utility in future counter-narcotics operations.

Using the standard choice herbicide ‘Round-Up Ultra’, which contains the active ingredient glyphosate, US and Colombian aerial fumigation aircraft sprayed approximately 1.6 million hectares of Colombian land between 1997 and 2012. Although the US government has since reported a steady reduction in illicit cultivation in Colombia, it has not been substantial, and the operation has suffered from a number of failures. Firstly, there have been recent reports of crop-spraying aircraft being shot down by armed guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Front of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), who have been known to seek cooperation with criminal drug gangs as a way to finance their activities. Shootings of crop-spraying aircraft undermine one of the primary motivations for aerial fumigation: that manual eradication on the ground is too dangerous for officials due to the threat of ambush and sniper fire from rebels and criminal gangs.

Crop-spraying aircraft are thus forced to fly higher during operations. This, however, results in the next drawback: as the crop-spraying aircraft are forced to fly higher, and therefore spray with less accuracy, strong winds carry the herbicide over larger areas, causing legal crops which grow in close proximity to illicit crops to be unintentionally killed off. This has seriously undermined government efforts to encourage alternative cultivation of legitimate crops. This effect has particularly been noted in the Guaviare region of Colombia, where it was reported that 160 plots of Amazonian fruit trees (planted by farmers as part of an initiative for alternative cultivation) were reduced to just 17 plots between 2001 and 2006, with 70% of the damage being blamed on aerial fumigation. Moreover, indigenous leaders have told reporters how their communities lost fish farms and small animals due to poisoning, whilst larger farm animals and local residents have been falling ill with lasting symptoms for several weeks.

Thirdly, aerial eradication has aggravated a phenomenon labelled as the ‘balloon effect’ – the idea that if the production of illicit crops is squeezed in one region, it will simply swell up in another. Indeed, in 2002, shortly after initiation of the first aerial fumigation operations, the US State Department noted a 23 percent increase in coca production in Bolivia and an 8 percent increase in Peru. The result: aerial eradication has not affected the purity, price or availability of cocaine in North America in the last decade. Some nongovernmental organisations have also claimed that many of the activities and impacts associated with aerial fumigation represent clear violations of international law.

As farmers find more innovative methods of producing coca under the threat of aerial fumigation, cocaine continues to find its way into the drug trafficking network. There is little the governments of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia can do to prevent the final product from reaching their local consumers. However, for the US, the next line of defence is aerial interdiction. The US has worked closely with Latin America to enforce a multi-million dollar strategy of ‘‘Air Bridge Denial’’, with the ‘Air Bridge’ referring to ‘the air transport of cocaine base paste…and/or ‘‘finished’’ cocaine in the Andean-Amazonic region’.  This has the overall goal of blocking aerial shipments of illicit substances from reaching North America. Operations extend over the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Mexico’s west coast, incorporating tactics of surveillance, pursuit and sometimes the kinetic use of force.

During the early to mid-1990s, sub-operations, Green Clover and Lazer Strike, brought increased levels of cooperation between Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. In 2006, a U.S. official stated that since 2004 the Air Bridge Denial initiative had caused a decrease of 56 percent in trafficking flights, an increase of 75 percent of law enforcement operations on the ground, and a 7 percent reduction of the total aerial flow of drugs to the United States. The Dominican Republic, using its Sovereign Skies initiative, has almost entirely cleared its airspace from illicit activity thanks to the incorporation of a JACCE (Joint Air Component Coordination Element), which facilitates cooperation between air and ground forces in conjunction with the US.

However, Air interdiction policies have struggled to appreciate the evolution of the nature of the illicit drugs trade. There is a general consensus that traffickers have been successfully diverted from their usual routes, but the extent to which this has reduced the availability of drugs in the US is still uncertain.  A 2005 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows how the diversion of suspicious flight paths has merely made interception more difficult. For example, the GAO reports how the suspicious flight tracks have moved towards the Colombian border, making it harder to survey and intercept aircraft within Colombian airspace because of range issues.

Traffickers have also taken to using other tactics such as flying in zigzagging directions, shadowing commercial flights, or simply dropping their cargo in the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean Sea before it is picked up by waiting ‘Go-fast’ smuggling boats. Latin American drugs traffickers are not technically ‘insurgents’ because they do not seek to overthrow a political body through subversive violence. However, they are certainly asymmetric adversaries that incorporate insurgent tactics learnt from ‘real’ insurgent organisations such as the FARC. It is therefore appropriate to tailor the role of air power in counter-narcotics operations by reflecting on its capability to counter insurgencies.

There have also been problems encountered with inserting military air power in general into drug interdiction efforts: The F-16 fighter jet, for example, cannot fly slow enough to track low-flying smuggling aircraft and also suffers from a low fuel capability. This allows traffickers to temporarily change course, then return to the original course once the F-16 has flown back to refuel. The common military philosophy of ‘immediate action’ against illicit trafficking is not always appropriate without gathering valuable evidence, and the military will always struggle to fulfil a ‘passive role’ given its powerful resources. There is also no doubt in the public eye that military forces are steadfast, constant and reliable; however, as these forces are also required for national defence, they can suddenly be taken out of the counter-narcotics effort and deployed to other parts of the world. This represents, as suggested by Ahart and Stiles, ‘a fickle, counterproductive component into the endeavor’, leaving heavily armed narco-traffickers with a strategic advantage over less prepared law-enforcement bodies.

The failures of aerial fumigation have cast serious doubt on the utility of air power in drug eradication. The rule of international law and human rights considerations must be taken into account, and there are other options for reducing the cultivation of illicit crops such as alternative development and reaching peace agreements with local rebels. Although aerial interdiction has seen mixed success, its future implementation must involve elements applicable to counter-insurgency. Aerial surveillance should be balanced with rapid transport services, and inter-agency and international cooperation will remain essential. The future use of military air power in counter-narcotics operations must remain passive, and it should only become active in matters of urgent national defence.

Jack Nott-Bower is currently studying for an MSci in International Relations and Global Issues

Published inConflict & Security

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