U.S., Colombian governments work to to deter drug trafficking

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Matthew Bates
  • Air Force Print News
While there are thousands of Airmen deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of the much publicized and deliberate war against terrorism, there is another group of Airmen deployed to Colombia as part of a separate and almost invisible war altogether. 

This war is combating illegal air trafficking. On a routine basis, weapons and money pour over the nation's borders as insurgents trade for these items by selling drugs. The weapons and money are flown into the county via illegal aircraft that land at makeshift landing strips, unload their cargo and then fly out of the country laden with tons of cocaine. The weapons are then used by the insurgents to combat the Colombian government, a war that has been waging for decades. 

Then, in 2003, the U.S. and Colombian governments reinstated a program designed to decrease and eventually eliminate these illegal flights. The program, called Air Bridge Denial, uses a network of radars, aircraft and people to detect, intercept and either force or shoot down illegal aircraft entering and leaving Colombia. 

"This program is a cooperative effort among members of the Air Force, the Joint Interagency Task Force, the Department of State and the Colombian government," said the program's manager, who is a member of the State Department. "At its heart is trust between these organizations that allows them to act together to accomplish this mission." 

This trust has paid off. In only three and a half years since its inception, the Air Bridge Denial program has reduced the amount of illegal flights into and out of the country by 70 percent and has lead to the seizure of over 15 metric tons of cocaine, figures that are higher than any of the agencies involved expected. 

The program works like this: Any one of a variety of radars will pick up an aircraft during a routine sweep and its operators will contact the command and control center, which is manned by Air Force personnel, and ask if this aircraft is a military or other government aircraft.

If it isn't, then one of five Citation aircraft belonging to the program moves into the area to find the unidentified aircraft. The Citations are fitted with radar in their noses that allows them to find and track illegal planes. Once a Citation's crew has "eyes on" the unidentified craft and the determine that it is an illegal flight, they alert the Colombian Air Force and an aircraft, such as the U.S. provided OV-10 Bronco, is scrambled to intercept it.

Throughout this process, the Colombian aircraft attempts to make radio contact with the unidentified plane and issues instructions for it to land. If the plane maintains radio silence and ignores the Colombian's instructions, then the fighter plane will fire warning shots to further persuade the illegal aircraft to land. If the pilot of the illegal plane still refuses to land, then the fighter jet has the authority to shoot it down. 

"These are rare instances when we have to shoot down an aircraft," said an Air Force official with the program. "But they serve to deter further illegal flights and help the Colombian government maintain sovereignty of their air space." 

Typically, the illegal aircraft do land and their contents are either seized or destroyed. 

"Our ultimate goal is to eliminate all illegal flights into and out of Colombia," said the Air Bridge Denial program manager. 

Still, they are facing a smart enemy. Now, instead of conducting long flights over much of the country, the insurgents are flying their aircraft just over the boarder before landing, a tactic that makes it hard for radar or Colombian aircraft to detect these illegal flights. 

Even if they do detect a flight, by the time they are able to move into the area where the illegal aircraft was last seen the aircraft will have already landed and been camouflaged among the jungle terrain that dominates much of the country. 

The agencies involved are still confident in their ultimate success, however. 

"We realize we are fighting an adaptive group of individuals," said the program manager. "But we have more tools and resources available that allow us to be just as adaptive as they are." 

The Colombian government is also certain the program will have positive long-term effects on the country and its relationship with the U.S. 

"We have a strong relationship already," said a Colombian military official. "Working together with this program has only made it stronger and I see a bright future ahead of us."