Aerial interdiction has cost innocent lives
by RODRIGO UGARTE
On April 20, 2001, Peruvian security forces, with CIA help, shot down a small floatplane over the Amazon near the Brazilian border. American missionary Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter died in the attack.
Having filed no flight plan, the aircraft’s pilot failed to respond over the radio. Authorities suspected the plane of transporting drugs, but found no contraband aboard.
The tragic incident led to a major de-escalation of aerial-interdiction efforts in the region. But in 2015, Peru revived its aggressive shoot-down policy.
Lima’s new law expands the definition of a “hostile” aircraft to include any aircraft authorities even suspect of drug-trafficking. “When an intercepted civilian aircraft has been declared hostile, it ceases to be a civilian aircraft,” the law states.
Peru passed its Control, Security and Defense of National Airspace Law in August 2015 in response to increasing “narco-flights” from the Andes and Amazon in recent years. And Lima isn’t alone.
Argentina’s new president Mauricio Macri enacted an executive order in January 2016 authorizing the Argentine air force to identify, track, intimidate and shoot down suspected drug-trafficking planes. The press release cites the rise in violence and drug trafficking as justifications for the harsh measures.
Argentina’s shift is no surprise. Most of its cocaine comes by air from Peru and Bolivia.
As a top producer of coca leaf and cocaine, Peru sits at one end of an air bridge that transport drugs through Bolivia and Argentina to Europe and Brazil. The small turboprops land on dusty pistas scratched out of the lush forest in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River valleys — known as the VRAEM.
Lawlessness in the region continues despite Peru’s efforts to quell it. The government granted the military jurisdiction in the region when it started retaking the region in 2006.
“There has been political pressure to crack down,” Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, told War Is Boring.
The lingering ghosts of terrorism haunt Peru’s counternarcotics efforts. Sendero Luminoso — the Shining Path — has hidden in the VRAEM since the 1980s and its remnants use cocaine to fund its activities. The terrorist group killed at least eight Peruvian security personnel in 2015 and 10 more in April 2016.
But the introduction of Peru’s military has done little to push the Shining Path out of VRAEM, Isacson explained.
The United States remains adamantly opposed to shooting down aircraft in counternarcotics operations, even though the U.S. State Department’s 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report found that up to 50 percent of Peru’s cocaine travels by air to Bolivia.
Between January and August 2015, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency documented 310 flights amounting to an estimated 95 metric tons of cocaine. Yet Washington still warned Peru against using force. Only Colombia has the United States’ blessing to shoot down planes — and Bogota hasn’t done so since 2003.
“The purpose of air-sovereignty programs is not to use lethal force to bring down aircraft,” Jose Ruiz, spokesperson for U.S. Southern Command, told War Is Boring via email. “The main goal of such programs is denying transnational criminal organizations — in the safest possible manner — use of sovereign airspace by detecting, sorting, intercepting and directing aircraft suspected of engaging in illicit drug trafficking to land.”
Force is to be used only as a last resort. It was under this assumption that the United States granted Colombia a “presidential determination” allowing Bogota’s forces to use U.S.-supplied intelligence and assistance to engage civilian aircraft.
Other Latin American countries have shoot-down policies, but rarely enforce them, opting instead to simply track suspect aircraft by way of radar and intervene on the ground. Venezuela, of course, is one exception — and claims to have shot down 30 aircraft in 2015.
Yet, air-interdiction is no panacea. “If you’re easily detected by radar, what we have seen generally is that pilots stop using that route,” Isacson said.
“You’re inconveniencing them,” Isacson said of traffickers. “They would always prefer to use the airplane way,” because it’s faster. But they can easily switch to land, river or maritime routes.
Aircraft also limit how much a single shipment can carry, since traffickers generally fly single-engine Cessnas. Overland and water routes allow transportation of greater quantities.
But what if you can’t be detected by radar? While other countries in the region strengthen their radar coverage, Peru struggles. Money set aside in 2014 for the purchase of four new radar systems had to be used to cover El Niño damage.
Defense Minister Jakke Valakivi said in a September 2015 press conference that the Peruvian air force had installed a radar in the Amazonian city of Puerto Maldonado.
The FAP installed the 1990s-vintage TPS-70 radar in May 2015. The TPS-70 detected 47 aircraft in its first active month, according to a Peruvian military statement. FAP and Peru’s National Anti-Drug Commission paid for the repairs.
Covering a 250-mile radius in southern Peru along the Bolivia and Brazil border, the Puerto Maldonado radar can be effective, but leaves gaps in Peru’s coastal and northern regions. The INCSR found a decrease in flights from VRAEM, probably thanks to the radar, but these shifted east to the Alto Picha and Urubamba river valleys.
Valakivi told reporters a second radar would be installed in Pucallpa to cover Peru’s northern Amazon, but it has yet to materialize.
More radars, as well as greater surveillance aircraft, could make a difference. Both the Peruvian air force and defense ministry declined to comment for this story.
Peru appears to be winning the battle against the pistas— at least on paper. The INCSR claimed Peru destroyed 277 airstrips in 2015, 14 more than the previous year. The country also seized 15 aircraft.
But clandestine pistas continue springing up in the region like weeds under the noses of their exterminators. And a scathing Associated Press report from October 2015 found deep corruption within the ranks of the Peruvian military. Police officers complained of having to watch planes land and take off unimpeded just few miles away from military bases.
Without access to helicopters, the Peruvian police rely on the army or air force for surveillance flights and transportation. The report accused Peruvian military officers of accepting bribes of up to $10,000 to allow the traffickers’ Cessnas to land. Peru’s defense ministry lambasted the AP’s report.
In any event, there are alternatives to shooting down traffickers’ planes. Colombia has led the way. “The recent success of Colombia’s Air Bridge Denial Program is a good example of how air sovereignty can be enforced without shoot-downs,” Ruiz told War Is Boring. Colombia’s program involves radar and aerial surveillance like Peru’s own strategy does, but the Colombian plan de-emphasizes shoot-downs.
After Peru destroyed that floatplane and killed two innocent civilians in 2001, the United States suspended its assistance not only to Peru’s air-interdiction effort, but to Colombia’s similar effort, as well. Washington formulated the less-lethal Air Bridge Denial program on Bogota’s behalf and endorsed occasional aerial-interdiction.
The Colombian plan mandates a stricter set of protocols before security forces are allowed to down a plane — which, again, Bogota has not done in more than a decade. The plan also requires civilian aircraft to use specific radio channels.
However sensible they might seem, Peru rejected these new rules. And for this reason, the United States is unlikely to work closely with Lima on Peru’s new interdiction scheme, despite the increase in aerial trafficking. “I don’t think there is enough trust that something won’t go wrong again,” Isacson said. “The liability is too great.”
In May 2016, Peru shot down its first aircraft under the new law, according to media reports.