Partner Nations Bolster Air Defense to Counter Narcotrafficking

Partner Nations Bolster Air Defense to Counter Narcotrafficking

By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo
April 24, 2018

Hundreds of Colombian and foreign officers and noncommissioned officers trained with the Colombian Air Force (FAC, in Spanish) through its National Air Defense System School (ESDAN, in Spanish). In the last five years, 1,830 officers participated in ESDAN’s airspace control program. The objective is to bolster defense systems and effectively detect illegal drug flights in Colombia, Central America, and the Caribbean. The training events are held at FAC’s 1st Air Combat Command in the central region of Cundinamarca.

“Colombia is a world leader in the fight against narcotrafficking because of its record,” FAC Lieutenant Colonel Juan Diego Páez González, director of ESDAN, told Diálogo. “Our military forces have wide-ranging knowledge and experience that we share with other countries to keep this threat from impacting regional security.”

In 2018, FAC will offer 10 courses to enhance regional knowledge, tactics, techniques, and procedures in air defense. The training program is part of the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan on Regional Security Cooperation for Central America and the Caribbean, an initiative of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and the Colombian Ministry of Defense.

“Through SOUTHCOM, the U.S. government became a strategic ally in this initiative,” Lt. Col. Páez said. “The U.S. provides the funds, while Colombia contributes its experience and lessons learned to train other countries.”

Air defense program

Service members and security agents from Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, and the Dominican Republic, who trained between 2013 and 2017, learned about operational doctrine, air defense, regulations, control of illicit goods, and legal and strategic context. They also received training in aviation safety, tracking and analyzing illegal trafficking, mock situations, ground operations, and international law.

“There is little time to block an illegal aircraft,” Lt. Col. Páez said, explaining that the air defense program comprises various courses. “Students learn to do radar calculations and complete the entire interception process step by step, as set forth by ICAO’s [International Civil Aviation Organization] global standard on the interception of civil aircraft with a military aircraft.”

“We were impressed by FAC’s air interdiction procedures,” Agent Brayan Arrieta, an air control operator with Costa Rica’s Tactical Monitoring Center, told Diálogo. Agent Arrieta participated in the air defense course in October 2017. “Everything is strictly regulated and controlled as to how to carry out the operation.”

Other courses that make up the academic program on air defense are airspace control, aircraft tracking and analysis, airspace management, and a command and control course. Of all the students trained since 2013, 200 were international students.

“Thanks to this training, we develop key skills for communication, [information] analysis, coordination, and cooperation,” Agent Arrieta said. “We learn how to direct our resources toward the objective: to facilitate the tracking of aircraft that smuggle drugs or violate flight regulations in our countries and the region.”

Alliances and agreements

“ESDAN’s instruction must be in line with regional realities. Narcotrafficking evolves just like any other type of crime. [Offenders] constantly change their techniques to avoid being captured or neutralized. Illegal flights change from country to country each month,” Lt. Col. Páez said. “Narcotrafficking, illegal air trafficking, and transnational crime are ongoing crimes.”

According to the 2016 World Drug Report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, narcotraffickers’ main route to ship cocaine to the United States and Europe is via the Central American and Caribbean region. Although the majority of drug shipments are moved by land and sea, transits via small planes over Central America still represent a significant percentage, the report indicated.

“The combined effort of the United States and Colombia is to show the region how to fight these scourges,” Lt. Col. Páez said. “The more alliances and agreements we have with our sister nations, the more we can reduce the rate of illegal flights—not just domestically, but throughout Latin America,” Agent Arrieta added.

ESDAN seeks the support of international counternarcotic agencies. “Colombia also wants to share its experience with South American nations because the problem with illegal flights remains the same,” Lt. Col. Páez said. Agent Arrieta concurred, adding that “cooperation, information exchanges, and coming together in these courses are the most important ways to have more resounding success in air defense operations, with strict adherence to human rights.”
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