Mexican Air Force Engaged in Fight against Drug Trafficking

Mexican Air Force Engaged in Fight against Drug Trafficking

By Kaiser David Konrad
July 18, 2016

Great report. Congratulations to reporter.

In 2006, after taking assuming Mexico’s presidency,
Felipe Calderón took the bold initiative to declare war on the cartels
controlling drug trafficking. The security forces were no longer able to fight
the cartels which were disputing control of an illegal market that is still moves
billions of dollars annually. The police force and resources were insufficient
at that time for such a hard task. This created an image abroad that Mexico was
a type of “lawless land,” a view that did not necessarily reflect the reality
of Mexico’s day-to-day life.

In addition, drug trafficking had become a serious threat
to national security. In searching for a solution to this problem, Calderón
decided to deploy military personnel on the streets to counter this powerful
threat, the tentacles of which reached into the structures of the state itself.

President Calderón trusted the training, professionalism
and capabilities of the Army’s, Navy’s and Air Force’s military personnel to
engage in a task that turned out to be difficult, but that is still ongoing today
with positive results.

Currently, Mexico has the highest number of military
personnel involved in public security and
urban combat operations in the world, with 35,000 soldiers engaged in real
operations and deployed throughout key points in the national territory. They perform a wide range of missions, from street
patrols on military convoys that carry standing armed combatants with rifles
and machine guns atop the vehicles throughout the streets of major Mexican
cities, to complex and full-range operations carried out with the Federal
Police and other public security agencies, using all military and technological
resources available by land, sea and air.

According to the local press, this strategy of fighting
drug-trafficking cartels directly may be accountable for the death of almost 30,000
people, a great number of which had been involved directly or indirectly in criminal
activities. The others were victims of the violence caused by organized crime in
the confrontations between military and police forces.

As a result, the government began to focus more on
intelligence activities than on direct confrontation. In July of 2008, the
National Defense Secretariat (SEDENA) signed a contract to purchase a batch of
unmanned aerial systems (UAS). With this major acquisition, their activities began
a new phase with the use of state-of-the-art technology, including special
equipment and sensors which provided not only tactical but also strategic
benefits. Their ability to collect data remotely, safely, accurately, and in
real time made them the main tools for the military personnel in this fight.

As a result of focusing on intelligence activities, Mexicans
also avoided direct confrontations with drug traffickers, which was confirmed by
the drastic reduction in the number of deaths, compared to the beginning of the
operation. It was also reflected in the reduced numbers of soldiers and
policemen who died or were injured in the line of duty and in the reduced cost
of these operations. The goal was not to kill the criminals, but to arrest them
and take them to court, where they would stand trial and be sentenced to prison
as a result of the appropriate legal proceedings required in view of the crimes
committed, a clear example that justice was being served within Mexican


In May 2009, the Mexican Air Force (FAM, for its Spanish
acronym) created a UAS squadron called ESANT for its Spanish acronym in a
secret location within an isolated town in the state of Tlaxcala. Its operational
base is at 8,300 feet above sea level, in the midst of a beautiful but scantily-inhabited
region surrounded by La Malinche, Iztaccíhuatl, and Popocatépetl volcanoes.

ESANT has a total force of 250 servicemen commanded by an
Air Force Colonel (anonymous for security reasons), who has been an F-5 pilot
and head of air defense. Ironically, only the squadron’s base is located in Tlaxcala,
since operations there are restricted due to the high altitude, but the
location offers the calm and safety required by the servicemen and their
families, since they are often targeted by drug traffickers. Its structure
includes a chief of mission, three internal and two external pilots, three
technicians specialized in aircraft maintenance, and three others in

The operations are always secret and frequently conducted
in the state of Sinaloa, a region that is dominated by the cartel of the same
name, which is considered the most powerful in the world and is headed by Joaquin
“El Chapo” Guzmán. Operations are also conducted in the states of Durango,
Chihuahua, Nuevo León, and along the border with the United States, depending
on the needs of the National Defense Secretariat.

Aircraft can be flown anywhere in just 96 hours. Operators
only need to dismantle, encase, and mount them in one of the FAM’s Hercules C-130.
To protect the safety of personnel and resources used, as well as ensuring operational
secrecy, ESANTs only operate from military airports, which must be at a distance
of up to 250 kilometers from the area of operation.

Each system comprises three aircraft and a universal ground
control station (UGCS), and can be set up for flight in less than two hours. Within
the cockpit, each system works for up to four hours before being replaced by
another. There, in addition to piloting and managing the mission, the system
loads maps, programs regular and emergency routes and automatic take-off and
landing, and receives and monitors flight data and real-time video in order to transmit
their information to the leadership via satellite through a mobile unit.

Intelligence Collection

Mexico serves as a principal transit route to traffic
South American cocaine to the United States, and it is also one of the top
producers of marijuana, opium, and its by-product, heroine, which is replacing
this type of Asian drug in the North American market. One of this unit’s
missions is to find the crops, but that is the least complex of them. The main
mission is collecting intelligence by identifying, obtaining, and distributing
information in real time and in day and night about fixed and moving targets in
urban and rural areas.

The most important element in the war against drug
trafficking is to arrest the leaders, as was recently done with “El Chapo.” That
is why it is necessary to know the leaders, know where they live or hide and
with whom; what their habits are, who visits them, their personal liaisons, the
places they visit with whom and when, in addition to their secret objectives
and other information of interest. It is very difficult and dangerous to try to
infiltrate police and military personnel into the cartels, as well as to keep
continuous surveillance of these people and places. After all, any person in
the surrounding or nearby areas can be a potential snitch at the service of the
cartel, and it is almost impossible to conduct a long-term secret operation
without being discovered and captured. In that case, the punishment imposed by
drug traffickers is death. Therefore, air surveillance has become the most
effective way of collecting information and producing intelligence during long periods
of time without jeopardizing the secrecy of the operation and the lives of
those involved.

These surveillance missions require prior intelligence,
so it is essential to know what the target is and what they expect to discover.
A surveillance mission must not be interrupted, so it must run 24/7 and can last
up to two months, which has already ocurred on many occasions. While an
aircraft is over the target, another is on ground, but prepared to take off and
replace the first, and a third one is under maintenance and is being prepared
for the next substitution on the station.

The intelligence provided by aircraft used by the FAM has
allowed the leadership to use the tactical units on the ground that can choose
the best moment to conduct their approach or carry out an arrest, thereby
reducing the risks and the possibility of casualties and aviding confrontation
by surprising the criminals during moments of weakness and lack of preparation.
In this case, less service men are required. Operations that required hundreds
of policemen and soldiers can now be conducted by smaller teams and/or expert
or elite units whose actions are better directed, faster, and more secretive.

During these operations, the UAS collects geo-referenced
images which are then sent in real time to ground troops equipped with remote
video terminals. The use of this portable equipment provides the forces
involved with unique situational knowledge. Even though they are moving and at a
distance of more than 15 kilometers from the aircraft, they are able to receive
aerial images, the targets’ coordinates, and
follow any movement of interest within the perimeter while updating the
tactical scenario and the position of all forces involved in real time. For
example, they can receive information about the model and license plate of the criminals’
vehicle, whether they are using any automatic weapons, and what kind.

The CoMPASS IV −Compact Multi-Purpose Advanced Stabilized
System− sensor incorporates a laser pointer that supports night vision goggles,
frequently used to light up targets for the tactical units during night time
attacks. It transmits the images it produces to the Command and Control Center
of the Integrated Air Surveillance System in Mexico City, which consolidates
all communications and signals from the radar stations and the advanced air
alert aircraft. This direct link with the Mexican capital enables multiple
actors to participate and, if necessary, the civil and military authorities
involved in the operation to monitor and interfer, thus allowing direct contact
between the various echelons and ground troops.

ESANT’s commander said, “The quality of intelligence that
is produced depends on the sensor employed.” In the case of the CoMPASS IV, it
conducts surveillance during the day or night, at a distance of up to 13.5 kms
from the target. It is also equipped with a charge coupled device or CCD color
video camera and an additional thermal one, which facilitates carrying out
operations at night or at low luminosity levels. “During the day, the thermal camera
helps to detect persons inside a vehicle or to detect differences in temperature,
brightness, emission levels, among
others, of certain objects, for example a running engine,” he explained.

Air reconnaissance is another responsibility and a
secondary mission conducted by ESANT, the purpose of which is to perform
reconnaissance of specific areas with known coordinates when there is still not
enough information about them. In these cases, an automatic flight is performed
along a predetermined route in an attempt to detect suspicious movements or
illicit actions. At any sign of interest or suspicious activity, the aircraft
becomes controlled by the camera-guided mode, i.e., it is operated by the
internal pilots directly from the ground control station. Squadron pilots are
trained on how to detect signs of criminal activity, and more experienced
pilots can even detect the activity of informants, the so-called snitches, due
to the pattern of behavior they demonstrate and the way they make contact with
their counterparts. Not all the squadron pilots are aviators, however, as this
is a requirement solely for the external pilots.

The employment of these systems revolutionized the way
the military forces operate in such a unique and challenging scenario as the
Mexican one. They proved to be an essential means to obtain information and
produce fast, accurate, and safe intelligence via its sensors, which reduces
human limitations caused by different performance level and fatigue factors, and
allows the missions to continue indefinitely, until they are completed.

A Cutting-Edge Unit

ESANT also promotes innovation and technological
development in the area of UAS through the close relationships with academic institutions
and the industrial base of Mexico’s defense.

In view of the specialized knowledge acquired during
almost a decade of operations in such a demanding and complex environment, everything
seems to indicate that Mexico is at the operational forefront in Latin America.
Also, the FAM intends to create a flight school for UAS with a focus on
exchanges with more countries in the south, such as Colombia, Chile, and Brazil.

As I observed in Tlaxcala, serving at ESANT is a source
of great pride in the FAM because this is a pioneer unit that employs the most
advanced technology available to combat drug trafficking. It represents the Mexican
authorities’ “eye that knows and sees everything,” and is gaining recognition
and importance with each coming day. More than a specialty, it is on the path
to earning its own wings and becoming an entire career within the FAM structure.

The author is a journalist who specializes in national security topics.