Colombian Navy, Air Force Work Together to Combat Drug Trafficking

Colombian Navy, Air Force Work Together to Combat Drug Trafficking

By Marian Romero/Diálogo
August 09, 2016

Joint operations run by Colombia’s Navy and Air Force (FAC, for its Spanish acronym) have become an effective in shutting down drug trafficking routes. In just two operations in June, authorities seized more than a metric ton of cocaine hydrochloride in different areas of Colombia’s territorial waters in the Caribbean. Colombian Navy intelligence, together with information from U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) allowed Coast Guard stations in the cities of Santa Marta and Cartagena to interdict the vessels in one operation. However, in both instances, the FAC’s 3rd Combat Air Command guided the Navy’s rapid response units from the air. “Partnering with the FAC has been very beneficial because it provides intelligence from the air that would be slower and less precise from the water. The surveillance area that an aircraft can cover is 10 times larger than that of a ship. It also provides the exact coordinates of the suspicious vessel’s location, which makes for more efficient interdictions,” said Admiral Leonardo Santamaría, commander of the Colombian Navy. Adm. Santamaria explained that the armed forces of all affected countries have had to work together in the fight against international drug trafficking in order to comprehensively manage the situation and prevent the so-called balloon effect – in which the air within a latex balloon that is squeezed moves to a different area but never goes away – with crop eradication and drug trafficking suppression in Latin America. So far this year, the joint operations between the Navy and the FAC have resulted in the immobilization of nine vessels. This contributed to the Navy seizing a total of 72 metric tons of alkaloids to date in all of its operations, with and without the support of other institutions. FAC Support Because Colombia’s coasts front both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, the immense maritime space under the responsibility of the Navy led to the need for the partnership. The Colombian Navy and the FAC first began working together on naval interdiction operations in 2007. Since then, the collaboration has grown stronger. Although the success of the joint collaboration is not evident in the number of detained vessels each year due to current data not yet showing a specific trend, the communication methodology and logistics make this partnership an important strategy to combat drug trafficking. “The illegal use of airspace to traffic drugs has dropped by 99 percent, so a decision was made to include missions against illegal maritime traffic as one of the points of the FAC’s doctrine,” explained Colonel Iván Darío Bocanegra, director of FAC Air Defense. “This change has optimized our airspace use and allowed us to increase our use of the means and resources available to carry out national defense operations.” The Air Bridge Denial Agreement between the FAC and the U.S. Government concerning illicit air trafficking interdiction took effect in 2003. Known as the ABD Agreement, it allowed authorities to track and analyze aerial targets, disable illegal airstrips used by drug traffickers, among other strategies, which, in turn, led to the almost 100 percent elimination of airborne drug trafficking. With this positive outcome, the agreement was expanded in 2007 to include FAC air resources in support of suppressing illegal maritime trafficking of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, known as SSIMT. Naval interdiction is the process of boarding, inspecting, and searching a vessel suspected of engaging in illegal activity. If the suspicion is confirmed, the people on board the vessel are arrested and the illegal cargo is seized. The Colombian Navy is responsible for this part of the operation. The intelligence work is carried out by the Navy, although it can also be performed by the police or U.S. Southern Command. Based on that information, the FAC flies over a specific section of the ocean to find the illegal vessel from the air, whether it is a go-fast boat or a semi-submersible. Once the target has been sighted, the pilot relays the exact coordinates and acts as a guide for a Navy vessel to perform the interdiction. “The operations are performed as discreetly as possible. We fly high enough that we generate no noise that could alert the criminals. Usually, when they feel cornered, they throw the merchandise overboard to reduce their sentence,” Col. Bocanegra explained. “The success of the SSIMT operations lies in the communication between all armed forces involved and in the coordination orchestrated by the Colombian Navy.” Patrolling Both Oceans “Historically, drugs have primarily been trafficked by sea. Outlaws have preferred to travel by sea, even though it takes much longer than an aircraft, because it allows them to carry more weight at less cost,” Adm. Santamaría said. “A go-fast boat can be loaded down with 1.5 metric tons and a semi-submersible with 6 metric tons, but an airplane can only carry a few kilograms. That is why most of the problems occur at sea.” The Colombian Air Force is not the only organization patrolling the vast maritime space. It also has the support of all Central American countries and of the United States. Defense accords focused on combating drug trafficking have made it possible to achieve more effective control. The challenge for these operations is to continue to standardize doctrine and provide training as needed to task forces to carry out increasingly precise interdictions as well as to reduce the amount of drugs trafficked by sea. “With the momentum of the accords we have been implementing for several years now, we’ve set up effective fronts for neutralizing the criminals’ vessels. We have created doctrinal unity and a network of resources has been set up to tactically detect enemies,” Adm. Santamaría said. “Each interdiction operation draws on the resources available along the illegal vessel’s route. It could be an aircraft from one country, a boat or ship from another and so on, until the final mission is completed.”
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