The Colombian authorities carried out an operation to intercept an unauthorized aircraft in the airspace above the López de Micay municipality, in the department of Cauca, on August 8th. The air defense and surveillance system used by the Colombian Air Force (FAC, per its Spanish acronym) detected three unauthorized aircraft; two in the Caribbean which ended up not entering Colombian airspace, and a single-engine Cessna 210 that was identified as an illegal flight.
The plane did not have identification or a flight plan, and it was traveling at an altitude of 200 feet, considered dangerous for that type of aircraft, which, under normal conditions, is supposed to fly at 3,000 feet. It also ignored the security warnings and appeals that are done in these cases. The plane had the capacity to transport approximately 700 kilograms of cocaine.
“At first, it was determined that it was in violation of Colombia’s sovereign air space and it was classified as a suspect aircraft. Once it was confirmed that it did not have a tail number and that it had no intention to communicate, it was established that it was a hostile aircraft. At that point, the security protocol was activated to carry out the interdiction,” Colonel Jorge Saavedra, the director of Air Defense for the FAC, explained.
Air interdiction process
Colombia and the United States government are signatories to an Air Bridge Denial (ABD) agreement, an air interception accord that strengthens the Colombian government’s capacity for eradicating the illegal trafficking of narcotics and psychotropic substances by air. This program’s priority is to intercept suspect and hostile aircraft, forcing them to land so that the competent authorities can then take the necessary measures. The ABD agreement sets forth three phases to prevent the loss of innocent lives in the air or on the ground:
1). Tracking and monitoring aircraft suspected of being involved in illegal trafficking. In this phase, an effort is made to establish radio communication and/or send visual signals to the aircraft to order it to land at an assigned location that is suitable for a safe landing.
2). The use of warning shots with tracer bullets under prior authorization by the FAC commander. At the same time, efforts to establish communication with the aircraft are ongoing.
3). Firing weapons against the intercepted aircraft in the air or on the ground if it does not respond to the communications. In this phase, the goal is to disable the aircraft to force its landing, and if it is on the ground, to prevent it from taking off.
“It is essential to carry out these procedures word for word, without skipping any of the phases, to ensure the safety of civil aviation and to avoid operational errors,” FAC Major Álvaro Moreno Aranzales, the officer in charge of the mission in López de Micay, explained. “We use the gradual application of force to protect life, which is a priority. In this case, the procedure was carried out on a beach where the aircraft had landed. When it didn’t respond to our appeals, we had to disable it.”
The beach where it had illegally landed is uninhabited, just like most of the territory in López de Micay. That area has about 13,000 residents, which is a small number considering its size, 3,241 square kilometers of land.
“The beaches of the Colombian Pacific are very wide, and criminal organizations have set up landing sites in an attempt to violate our air space, even though landing on sand aboard a Cessna 210 presents a high risk,” Col. Saavedra confirmed. “We know from experience the places that are used for drug trafficking; therefore, they are subjected to special monitoring by air and ground detection units.”
The operation was conducted through the FAC Command and Control Center, which dispatched early warning and surveillance aircraft from several combat air commands for the surveillance and interdiction. To carry out the operation, an SR-560 intelligence plane piloted by Maj. Moreno was used, as well as an AC-47 fighter, known as The Ghost, and two A-29 Super Tucanos.
Shielded against drug trafficking
According to FAC, by 2003, 700 illegal flights per year were occurring on average. Today, the airspace is completely free from these kinds of incidents because aircraft attempting to violate Colombia’s sovereignty are neutralized. Three attempts to violate the nation’s airspace—including the one neutralized in López de Micay—have taken place in 2017, but they were all detected and intercepted.
“Today we can confirm that 100 percent of Colombian airspace is protected by FAC,” Col. Saavedra assured. “With our new early alert and detection system, plus the reinforcement of our capacities all these years, we can guarantee that there is no drug trafficking by air in Colombia.” To achieve this result, Colombia has bolstered its intelligence and has formed alliances with all the nations of the region to maintain their mutual assistance and ensure the stability of their airspace.
“The main challenge that drug trafficking poses to us is that it changes daily. Because this is transnational crime, it’s important for our nations to be connected and for us to anticipate the actions that the criminals may be planning to carry out,” Col. Saavedra added. “We’ve detected cases of ultralight aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles, but their cargo capacity is minimal—just one or two kilos—and they’ve been intercepted. The biggest challenge is at sea, because the cargo capacity through that avenue is far greater—10 tons—and detection is more complicated in the ocean environment,” he concluded.