Colombia and Mexico Enhance Air Interdiction of Drug Trafficking
By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo December 16, 2016Members of the Colombian Air Force (FAC per its Spanish acronym), and the Mexican Air Force (FAM per its Spanish acronym), performed the first air interdiction simulation to combat the illegal use of Caribbean airspace by drug traffickers. The MEXCOL I air interdiction training was held November 21-25 on the island of San Andrés in Colombia, at the Caribbean Air Group base. Five officers from each air force participated in the training. The goal of the exercise was to implement current operating procedures for air interdiction and interception and to smoothly and efficiently exchange information in order to reinforce air defense systems and effectively detect illegal flights. “The exercises were run as simulations in order to figure out how we could somehow conduct them in real-life scenarios,” Lieutenant Colonel Andrés Niño, deputy director of FAC Defense Operations, told Diálogo. “Building personal ties and trust are fundamental for the armed forces that participate in these operations,” said Rubén Sánchez, professor at the School of Political Science at Colombia’s Universidad Nacional. MEXCOL falls under the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Colombian and Mexican air forces on September 27, 2015. The agreement established operating procedures for air interdiction and interception. The exercise involved different virtual operations, basic operational training with the aircraft of both air forces, and the latest tactics for interdiction, identification, and transfer of illegal flights of unidentified aircraft in order to improve and bolster control over airspace. “We simulated each air force’s operation center in order to provide training and apply operating procedures with the steps to take when illegal aircraft are discovered in the airspace of either of these countries,” said Lt. Col. Niño. The six-stage operating procedure involved the detection of the aircraft, identification and classification based on established protocols, interception, follow-up, and delivery of the target or aircraft by one of the air forces to the other. Five simulations were conducted during MEXCOL, involving aircraft that left Mexican airspace towards Colombian airspace through the Caribbean or the Pacific. The operations recreated the means of detection, radars, and aircraft normally involved in aerial anti-drug trafficking operations. “We also sought to set up and test out a timely and clear flow of accurate information between the two operation centers. In addition, we aimed to solidify binational relations by exchanging records and applying procedures for the surveillance and control of airspace,” stated Lt. Col. Niño. “We efficiently and successfully met all of these goals.” Officers learned that FAC and FAM “have procedural similarities. They have different capacities, and these capacities ultimately contribute to, and are effective in, combating aerial drug trafficking,” said Lt. Col. Niño. The two operation centers openly exchange information when a threat arises. Because as Sánchez said, “the fight against drug trafficking has to be a joint effort. Neither country can eliminate this threat alone.” Moreover, illegal flights pose a threat to civil and commercial aviation. “These (illegal) aircraft jeopardize the operation of (civil and commercial) aircraft, especially in the Caribbean, where they are usually bound for Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala or Mexico. That is why coordination between the air forces in the region is important,” said Lt. Col. Niño. The Caribbean is the main route used by drug traffickers to move cocaine to the United States and Europe. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, in the first half of 2015, around 90 percent of the cocaine bound for the United States passed through the Mexico-Central America corridor. “We need to shut down the criminal organizations that traffic large quantities of drugs. There is no question that cooperation must continue on land, in the air, and at sea,” concluded Sánchez.