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South American Drug War: Some Success, No Clear Solution

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

HOWARD AIR FORCE BASE, Panama, Dec. 19, 1997 – In the air operations center at Joint Interagency Task Force-South, blips on the computer monitor represent not a video parlor game, but a war.

But on this muggy Friday afternoon in early December, the action is one-sided, with only "friendlies" represented on the screen by white and blue icons. Here an Air Force E-3 early warning and control aircraft, there a Customs Service P-3. "Bandits," whom the screen also captures, have gone to ground.

Until recently, drug traffickers hauling coca out of South America almost always used aircraft to deliver their illicit cargo north to Colombian cocaine processing labs. In response, the United States and a consortium of Central and South American countries established tracking, detecting and shoot down policies that have curtailed, if not shut down, the air bridge and forced more and more traffickers to seek other routes.

Today, a web of U.S. aerial and ground-based radars effectively scan known and suspected drug smuggling routes. Here, a group of mostly Air Force Reserve officers and enlisted technicians employ computers and telecommunications to monitor and direct the tracking effort -- DoD's primary role in this multilateral counterdrug program. Operations Chief Air Force Lt. Col. Kevin Darnell said other services could as easily perform the mission.

"We're researching that idea now," he said. Active duty members from all four service branches comprise the task force staff. Meanwhile, the reservists volunteer for 90- to 120-day assignments. It's not slack time. "We're always open, so we have people on three different shifts, around the clock."

The task force participates in a drug intercept only to the point of pinpointing the location of a smuggler, either in the air or on the ground. "We have the ability to fly in close and read their tail numbers, then immediately communicate that information to the host nation," Darnell said. "They then determine whether the aircraft is legally registered or even known to be a suspected trafficker. If it's suspect, they make an appropriate response."

Depending on the circumstances and country involved, host nation responses range from confiscating equipment and cargo and arresting the traffickers to the stark finality of the Colombian shootdown policy.

"Typically, an airplane we've already identified as a suspected trafficker will be landed at an illicit airstrip, and the Colombians will come in with a gunship and shoot up the strip and aircraft," Darnell said. "They may send in law enforcement personnel as well to collect any traffickers they find scattered in the bushes."

From the operations center here, a team of DoD, Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and participating nation liaisons guide an all-out attack on the illegal drug source zones of South America. They share intelligence, communications and other resources, trying to stem the northward flow of cocaine and other narcotics that now include heroin.

The DoD function is built around six pillars: intelligence sharing, training and coordination, logistics support, detection and monitoring, planning assistance, and communications.

"We have clear guidance from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the United States Interdiction Coordinator and U.S. Southern Command," said Air Force Col. Barry Chisholm, task force deputy director and chief of staff. That guidance calls for a multilateral effort and wide use of all available U.S. resources -- embassies, military assistance groups, Coast Guard, Customs, DEA, as well as DoD, he said. "But the absolute key to success is international cooperation."

Liaisons from the participating nations -- Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela -- live and work on Howard, where they are integral to task force operations in their countries. "Their input is critical," Chisholm said, to the point a host nation representative flies on tracking missions to "cut through any governmental red tape after a spotting."

Despite a sophisticated array of radar, it isn't easy to spot the drug traffickers. "They have the possibility of using 3,000 airfields, ranging from jungle clearings to roads to international airports," Chisholm said. "On the surface, they have more than 100,000 kilometers of rivers. The Amazon River alone is 2,000 miles long. You can take coca from Peru all the way to the Atlantic Ocean."

That said, the multinational effort has reduced the drug flow. With a growth area capable of yielding 760 metric tons of coca a year, Peru's illicit crops have been cut 18 percent over the last three years.

"In Peru, we've had some success stopping the air bridge, which has caused narcotraffickers to either divert or cancel flights," Chisholm said. And because the risk is higher, pilots demand more money. "The narcotraffickers know that they are not just facing a parking ticket anymore," the colonel said. "They face the threat of apprehension, loss of their aircraft and in many cases, being shot down."

Counterdrug activities by this task force and Joint Interagency Task Force-East, which patrols the transit zone from Key West, Fla., have broken up most of the large cartels. "Suppliers now tend to be smaller and more regional, but also harder to spot," Chisholm said.

While the United States' prime goal is to stop South American drugs from reaching North America, Chisholm said the illegal drug trade has an equally devastating effect on the drug-producing nations. The threat posed by traffickers extends beyond their ability to move drugs, he said.

"In democratic societies, traffickers tear severely at the fabric of the nation," Chisholm said. "They have tremendous potential to undermine police and judicial efforts, and work against democracies by threatening the electoral process."

U.S. Southern Command's new commander in chief, Marine Gen. Charles Wilhelm, recently saw firsthand what's being done in Peru to stop trafficking. During an early December visit, Wilhelm met with government and military officials in Lima and visited training and radar sites along the Amazon River in Iquitos. He said he also has discussed the problem at length with Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"This is not a short-term proposition," Wilhelm concluded. "We're [the United States] a very large part of the problem, and [McCaffrey] has developed five-year programs with a 10-year overall strategy, which may be extended on the far end.

"My goal and hope is for steady and measurable progress. But to me, it's a long-term problem with a long-term solution."

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