Central American, Caribbean Air Forces Join to Curb Narcotrafficking

Combined operations speed up tasks to neutralize illicit traffic and clandestine airstrips used to move drugs to the northern part of the hemisphere.
Lorena Baires/Diálogo | 23 May 2019

Capacity Building

Elements of the Salvadoran Air Force prepare to start training to improve their operational readiness in air interdiction. (Photo: Gloria Cañas, Diálogo)

The Salvadoran Air Force organized the first Surveillance and Airspace Control against Illicit Forces Seminar on March 25-April 5, 2019, in Ilopango. Elements from the five member countries that make up the Central American Armed Forces Conference (CFAC, in Spanish) took part in the event. Officers from El Salvador (six), Guatemala (two), Honduras (two), Nicaragua (two), and the Dominican Republic (two) exchanged experiences and knowledge about airspace control to counter crimes that affect the region.

"Combined operations guarantee that the military will conduct all the necessary procedures to escort suspicious aircraft, turn them in to the partner nation where they were headed, and prevent them from landing in clandestine airstrips or escaping with the illicit shipment they are carrying," Salvadoran Air Force (FAS, in Spanish) Major Alan Botto, seminar instructor and commander of the First Air Brigade's Air Base Group, told Diálogo. "Although we have sovereignty to overfly our countries, we require special permits every time we need to cross borders."

Time is the greatest enemy when it comes to air interdiction. For example, an aircraft needs only 40 minutes to cross the 300-kilometer width of El Salvador, or 20 minutes to travel from Honduras to El Salvador. "From the moment the radar sends an alert, our pilots have 10 minutes to be in the air. But if we’re alerted when it’s halfway across the territory, we have little time to intercept it," Colonel Manuel Calderón, commander in chief of the FAS General Staff, told Diálogo.

Air interdiction is streamlined from start to finish with combined procedure protocols. "Salvadoran aircraft have crossed the Guatemalan border to turn in an aircraft carrying an illegal shipment," said Maj. Botto. "We escort aircraft in compliance with the Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the Chicago Convention.”

Regulations update

Civil aviation authorities of Central America and the Caribbean are redesigning airspaces and updating rules, regulations, and laws that regulate flights and approaches to airports. Changes are necessary because of the shift from conventional navigation systems to satellite systems. This implies a training process on new infrastructure and technology for pilots and air controllers.

Elements of the Central American Armed Forces Conference conduct an interdiction exercise to curb illicit traffic in the region. (Photo: Gloria Cañas, Diálogo)

During the seminar, participants reviewed the advances in new designs, implementation of area navigation (RNAV) systems and performance based navigation (PBN). RNAV systems allow aircraft to fly closer to one another, with better use of airspace. PBN specifies navigation system requirements and the functionality required for operations in a particular airspace.

"We must recognize that airspaces change, and it's important to be up-to-date and identify the errors aircraft use to conduct illegal activities," Dominican Air Force Major Carlos Encarnación told Diálogo. "Therefore, we must get together as an integrated air force in the fight against narcotrafficking to increase our knowledge and learn from partner nations’ successful experiences."

"CFAC countries focus on improving coordination among airspace control centers," Maj. Botto said. "Joint Interagency Task Force South is an important strategic partner that observes in real time, closely monitors all kinds of suspicious vessel, sends early warnings, and facilitates immediate reaction, as well as effective work."

On the last day of the seminar, officers proposed the creation of a regional alert network that would involve citizens to coordinate and report illicit movements. The fight against narcotrafficking and other threats demands that operators be connected in real time and that all possible information sources be incorporated.

"During the seminar, we enabled clear communication channels with air controllers to share real-time information," said FAS Second Lieutenant Jaime Argueta, a First Air Brigade member. "This training is very helpful, because it allowed me to learn new technologies, for example, in the radar field, that other countries outside the region use in the fight against narcotrafficking."

U.S. Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said that countries should have solid relations to fight together for security. “We know partnerships work; we know partnerships between friends who trust each other work best; [they] respect and support each other,” said Adm. Faller during his January 2019 trip to Central America. “That’s why I’m here, to continue our enduring promise as both a partner and a friend, ready to continue our collaborative work in support of peace, security, and the stability that we all value.”

The challenge of Central American air forces is to create a multidisciplinary group to build air maritime operations and integrate civilian air traffic controllers. It’s the best way to join all those who monitor and protect the Central American airspace.

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