Radars detect an irregular flight traveling from Peru to Bolivia. As soon as the plane enters Bolivian territory, aircraft from the Bolivian Air Force (FAB, in Spanish) intercept it.
Following a detailed procedure, the FAB aircraft flies parallel at very close range to the plane to make contact, then displays numbers against its window to ask for a radio frequency change. Once radio communication is established, FAB requests their tail number (identification), flight plan, and entry authorization, among others. After confirming the plane’s illegal status, the Bolivian aircraft instructs it to change course and escorts it to the Peruvian border where the Peruvian Air Force (FAP, in Spanish) takes over.
The scenario was part of PERBOL I, the first FAB-FAP joint exercise to optimize the detection of illegal aircraft. Held November 13–17, 2017, PERBOL focused on operations to detect, identify, and transfer irregular air traffic in the Amazon border both countries share.
“Through these actions, participating states lay down their border control policies on fighting narcotrafficking, smuggling, and other global illegal activities, thus affirming the full exercise of their sovereignty,” reported FAB in a press release. For its part, FAP highlighted the importance of working with Bolivia. “To establish and strengthen our professional ties with neighboring countries, especially those that share common threats such as drug trafficking, is essential to achieve integration and overcome all manner of difficulties,” Major Juan Talavera, FAP press secretary, told Diálogo. “This will ensure regional security within a shorter time frame.”
During the five-day exercise, participants defined the area of operations in Peruvian and Bolivian territory and improved current operational procedures. Through a mock scenario, service members of both countries optimized the use of fighter aircraft, vehicles, communications systems, and equipment required to successfully complete the missions.
“We did three days of operations, with two interception events each day,” Lieutenant General Raúl Hoyos de Vinatea, FAP chief of Operations, told Diálogo. “The joint procedures worked out quite nicely.”
The first edition of PERBOL was flown out of FAP’s Puerto Maldonado Air Base, in the Peruvian jungle region of Madre de Dios, and from FAB’s Cobija Air Base, located on the Bolivian side of the Amazon basin bordering Brazil. The airspace in this zone serves as an air bridge to move drugs between both countries.
“We transmitted the information from our TPS-70 radar at Puerto Maldonado,” Lt. Gen. Hoyos explained. “We took a repeater to Cobija [Bolivia], which they were able to use to make the interceptions.”
The Bolivian force took to the sky with light attack aircraft, using a Beechcraft as an aerial target. In turn, FAP deployed A-37B Dragonfly aircraft, a Fairchild C-26 as a reconnaissance and intelligence plane (equipped with optical and infrared systems), and a Twin Otter as the target aircraft. FAP also kept a search and rescue helicopter on standby.
“They [FAB service members] are just starting to train their staff, as they don’t really have any radar operators yet,” Lt. Gen. Hoyos explained. “This enabled us to provide them with a bit of doctrinal knowledge on this kind of work, since we’ve had a lot of experience with the air bridge for more than 10 years with the United States.”
Drug air bridge
According to the 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report of the U.S. Department of State, Bolivia is the third largest cocaine producer in the world after Peru, with nearly 37,000 hectares of coca crops (Peru has roughly 53,000 hectares). The report indicates that 50 percent of Peruvian cocaine is transferred to and from Bolivia over the air bridge.
Bolivian narcotraffickers, the report continues, cross through the Madre de Dios region to clandestine airstrips located in the Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro Rivers Valley—the largest coca-producing region in Peru—and north of the Amazon, near Ciudad Constitución [Peru]. The small planes return to Bolivia the same day loaded with up to half a ton of cocaine.
PERBOL I met its objectives. “Peru and Bolivia are more integrated and the synergy of our capacities is evident in our day-to-day operational performance,” Maj. Talavera said. According to statements from the Peruvian Ministry of Defense, air traffic in the Madre de Dios border area with Bolivia—which used to have 100 illegal flights per month—was reduced by 70 percent in December of 2017.
“Bolivia took a keen interest in PERBOL I because it acquired radars that will be installed and operated from its command and control center,” Lt. Gen. Hoyos said. “They showed a lot of interest in being able to conduct this exercise and train their forces to work better.”
The experience inspired both air forces to consider a PERBOL II (no date was set) and to shift from a mock training scenario to operations under real-world conditions. “We set a three-year timeline as our goal, when they [FAB personnel] will have their radars up and running—and we’ll have ours—to conduct these in a real-world environment,” Lt. Gen. Hoyos said.
Similarly, Peru and Bolivia consider having a third member join them for a tri-national exercise. “We want to achieve that,” Lt. Gen. Hoyos concluded. “We’ve agreed with Bolivia that after a couple of PERBOL, we’ll have Brazil join us for a tri-national exercise on our shared borders.”