Military Intercepts in South America: Nexus of aviation and narcotics trafficking

military intercepts

The trafficking of narcotics via civil aviation continues to be a major issue, and one which has resulted in many South American countries introducing controversial ‘shoot-down’ policies. Matthew Borie examines the impact of such policies on the environments in which they are implemented and advises civil aviation entities on best practice while operating in these areas.

Since 2012, multiple countries located in South America have implemented shoot-down policies to counter civil aviation flights involved in illicit activity and disablement of aircraft legislation for civilian air assets suspected of involvement in narcotics trafficking. Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and Peru have aggressive air intercept and shoot-down policies, which allow air and air-defence forces to intercept and disable aerial targets violating airspace regulations. For example, the air forces of Peru, Colombia and Brazil conducted a large-scale aerial anti-narcotics exercise between 19-23 June 2017 designed to prepare for countering unauthorised civil aviation flights by drug-trafficking organisations. Military air and air-defence assets have been employed by the air forces of each country to kinetically engage (using explosive ordinance such as missiles or guns) civilian aircraft suspected of involvement in narcotics trafficking under the auspices of the policies. In addition, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay have passed shoot-down policies; however, these countries to date have not kinetically intercepted or engaged civilian aircraft suspected of being involved in narcotics trafficking. While legal civil aviation flights are unlikely to be directly targeted, there remains a latent but credible risk of misidentification and interception by military air and air-defence assets over these countries.

“…Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and Peru have aggressive air intercept and shoot-down policies…”

An analysis of the operating profile of ‘suspected involvement in narcotics trafficking’ involves civilian aircraft flying without a valid flight plan, attempting to actively avoid radar detection, and deferral of maintaining required contact with air traffic control (ATC) authorities. During the flight-planning process, operators are advised to review and implement pertinent items contained in the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Inflight Broadcast Procedure (IFBP) along with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Annex 11 protocols for Traffic Information Broadcasts by Aircraft (TIBA). In order to limit the possibility of being intercepted by aerial anti-narcotics patrols by military forces in the countries listed above, operators are advised to ensure flight plans are correctly filed, attain proper special approvals for operations to sensitive locations and obtain relevant overflight permits prior to departure.

While business and general aviation entities and light aircraft flight operators are acutely affected by laws allowing military air assets in the countries above to intercept and disable aerial targets violating airspace regulations, the threat environment necessitates that commercial airlines also remain abreast of such activity. Many ‘conflict zones’ globally have advisories, notices, bulletins, prohibitions, circulars or restrictions from national or international civil aviation entities due to hazardous situations facing civilian flight operations emanating from kinetic activity conducted by state military forces and non-state actor groups. There are currently no national or international civil aviation entity advisories, notices, bulletins, prohibitions, circulars or restrictions regarding overflight of any South American country. This article will evaluate the current status of shoot-down policies within Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and Peru coupled with analysis of the operational airspace security environment over each country.

Venezuela

The Government of Venezuela adopted legislation in 2012 and 2013 allowing the military to intercept, immobilise and disable aircraft violating national airspace regulations. The laws specifically address military airspace control and defence, allowing the Venezuelan Air Force (FAV) to kinetically engage civilian aircraft suspected of involvement in narcotics trafficking. The central and western states of the country constitute an emerging overflight risk area due to the presence of FAV forces, which have shown a capability and intent to use fighter jets to target civilian aircraft suspected of involvement in narcotics trafficking. In the most concerning incident to date, on 21 October 2016 a Boeing 787 commercial passenger aircraft operated by the Colombian national carrier Avianca was unprofessionally intercepted by a FAV fighter jet in the airspace over Venezuela, setting off the aircraft’s collision warning system. The commercial aircraft was flying from Spain to Colombia and Avianca subsequently halted flight operations over Venezuela from 21-23 October 2016 due to the incident.

“…On 21 October 2016 a Boeing 787 commercial passenger aircraft operated by the Colombian national carrier Avianca was unprofessionally intercepted by a FAV fighter jet in the airspace over Venezuela…”

Since 2013, FAV fighter jets have reportedly shot down at least 20 such aircraft in total over the states of Apure, Táchira, Mérida, Barinas, Zulia and Amazonas. Most recently, a FAV fighter jet shot down a civilian aircraft suspected of involvement in narcotics trafficking near Lake Maracaibo in Zulia State on 22 April 2017. Over 29 and 30 April 2018, three illegal clandestine airstrips were destroyed by military aerial anti-narcotics patrols in the Venezuelan states of Zulia and Amazonas. Follow-on ground security operations immobilised a civilian light aircraft and led to the recovery of over 500kg (1102 lbs) of cocaine between the three airstrip locations. Previously, the FAV conducted aerial anti-narcotics patrols and immobilised three light aircraft in Zulia State as part of Operation Aricagua 2018-01, Operation Caribay 2018-01, Operation Sovereign Sky 2018-1 and Operation Yavire 2018-01 during February, March and April of 2018. In addition, the FAV destroyed civilian aircraft suspected of being involved in narcotics trafficking while they were on the ground at airstrips in Zulia State on 7 April 2017 and 20 February 2017.

Data provided by Osprey Flight Solutions depicts 135 incidents of aerial anti-narcotics patrol activity and air-supported security operations over Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and Peru during 2018.
Data provided by Osprey Flight Solutions depicts 135 incidents of aerial anti-narcotics patrol activity and air-supported security operations over Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and Peru during 2018.

Colombia

On 31 October 2017, the Colombian Ministry of Defence announced that the government had authorised the military to conduct offensive air operations against the National Liberation Army (ELN) leftist rebel group and dissident Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) elements along with Organised Armed Groups (GAOs). Each of these armed groups are directly involved in narcotics-trafficking activity in Colombia. In addition to the October 2017 decree authorising offensive aerial operations against armed groups, such activity is conducted under the auspices of Colombia’s Air Bridge Denial (ABD) anti-narcotics programme in coordination with the US government. There have been 11 kinetic engagements of suspected narcotics-trafficking aircraft by Colombian Air Force (FAC) air assets within the ABD programme since 1999. Between 24-28 July 2017, the FAC and the Dominican Republic military conducted an exercise focusing on countering suspected narcotics-trafficking flights.

On 31 May 2018, Colombian military forces conducted an air-supported security operation in Magdalena Department, which resulted in the kinetic destruction of a clandestine airstrip used for narcotics-trafficking flights by civilian aircraft. FAC aircraft, drones and helicopters are assessed to have been involved in the operation. Colombia has indicated that the destroyed airstrip was linked to a civilian aircraft suspected of narcotics trafficking that was shot down on 5 November 2017 by a FAC aircraft over Atlántico Department. On 8 August 2017, the FAC announced it had used combat air assets to intercept and destroy a Cessna 210 civilian aircraft suspected of narcotics trafficking near Lopez de Micay in Cauca Department. The Cessna 210 aircraft was detected over the Caribbean Sea and was reportedly unresponsive to commands to land from both civilian ATC authorities and the military.

Brazil

Brazil has had a ratified law covering the shooting down of narcotics-trafficking aircraft since 2004, although Brazilian Air Force (FAB) air-to-air gun (AAG) engagement using combat aircraft remains rare. However, there have been hundreds of identification interceptions of civilian aircraft and airstrikes on clandestine airstrips in the west of the country, along with the establishment of military-only restricted airspace areas. Aircraft intercepts have occurred as part of the multi-agency Operation Ostium, aimed at curbing cross-border illicit activities. Since June 2017, kinetic intercepts of suspected narcotics-trafficking aircraft and associated forced landings have occurred over Brazilian airspace on five occasions.

On 9 June 2018, the FAB stated that one of its A-29 Super Tucano combat aircraft had intercepted a civilian aircraft over Mato Grosso State. The FAB A-29 reportedly used its AAG to fire a warning shot near the suspected narcotics-trafficking aircraft, forcing it to land. The aircraft was reported to have come from Bolivia, had not filed a flight plan and neglected to respond to ATC commands. A similar FAB intercept of a suspected narcotics-trafficking flight and associated forced landing occurred in Mato Grosso State on 25 April 2018, when another civilian aircraft was reported to have come from Bolivia and had also failed to file a flight plan.

On 26 March 2018, the FAB stated that one of its A-29 aircraft had intercepted a civilian aircraft, forcing it to land in a rural area of Mato Grosso State. The FAB pilot followed established intercept protocols but received no response from the pilot of the trafficking aircraft and thus ordered it to land immediately. A military police helicopter then approached the downed aircraft and it was found to be carrying over 330kg (728 lbs) of cocaine. On 6 March 2018, in a similar incident, the FAB stated that another A-29 had intercepted a Piper Seneca II civilian aircraft, again forcing it to land in a rural area of Mato Grosso State. As previously, the FAB pilot followed established intercept protocols and received no response from the pilot of the trafficking aircraft, so ordered it to land at Cuiabá Airport in Mato Grosso State. When this was not obeyed, the FAB pilot gave a warning shot order, causing the aircraft to make a forced landing in a field. A military police helicopter again approached the downed aircraft, which was found to be carrying over 500kg (1102 lbs) of cocaine.

Peru

As a result of legislation passed during the 1990s, the Peruvian Air Force (FAP) downed over 35 civilian aircraft suspected of narcotics trafficking over the country prior to the year 2000. However, the FAP unintentionally shot down a civilian aircraft ferrying missionaries on 20 April 2001. Following this incident, the interception legislation was rescinded and no kinetic engagement of civilian aircraft suspected of narcotics trafficking occured in Peru from 2002-2016. However, legislation passed in August 2015 and a notice issued in January 2016 by the Peruvian Civil Aviation Authority outlined new procedures for military intercepts of civilian aircraft over the country.

Since 2016, Peruvian authorities have announced rolling 90-day State of Emergency decrees in the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM), which have included the intensification of aerial anti-narcotics patrols and air-supported security operations against armed drug-trafficking organisations currently active in the area. On 4 May 2016, Peruvian security forces utilised low-calibre anti-aircraft artillery to shoot down a civilian aircraft suspected of narcotics trafficking over the VRAEM, representing the first documented instance of the interception law being implemented since 2001. From 14-16 November 2017, FAP and Bolivian military air assets conducted an aerial exercise aimed at countering unauthorised narcotics-trafficking flights.

“…the FAP unintentionally shot down a civilian aircraft ferrying missionaries on 20 April 2001…”

Conclusion and Recommendations

Unannounced civilian and military air activity in the airspace over the countries discussed above represents an emerging civil aviation safety-of-flight concern. Reporting notes that civilian and military aircraft do not always use transponders, maintain ATC radio contact and/or file proper flight plans. While the likelihood of a catastrophic event is low, re-routing of civil aviation within the airspace over Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and Peru remains a credible but nascent risk going forward. As a precaution, operators are advised to conduct operational risk-based identification of divert and alternate airports for civil aviation flight plans that include overflight of the above countries. We also recommend that operators implement the following aviation risk mitigation measures for all flights over South America:

Airspace safety incidents have the potential to cause follow-on disruption to overflight, airport and aviation security operations. Operators are advised to review internal and external mechanisms for aviation and airspace safety reporting. Any revisions to processes should account for airspace safety occurrence provisions as part of a wider aviation risk management strategy to protect aircraft, passengers and crew. In addition, ensure emergency response and communications plans are up to date to enhance continuity during times of crisis.

Ensure that crews are fully briefed prior to operations on flight plan-specific threats and aviation risk mitigation measures. Ensure that crews know how to respond inflight during a medical emergency, safety incident and/or security event. If stationing aircraft and/or crews to airports in South America for extended durations, consider conducting pre-deployment security awareness training based on aviation risk management principles.

Increased military air operations have the potential to cause airspace congestion and impact the safety of civil aviation flights over the countries discussed above. Any significant increase in the amount of air operations over the countries may impact the availability of airports along with access to the airspace. Aviation operators should monitor airport/airspace-specific notices, bulletins, circulars, advisories, prohibitions and restrictions prior to departure to avoid flight schedule disruption. In addition, ensure crews scheduled to operate to or over the countries discussed above in the near term are fully aware of the latest security situation.

Matthew Borie
Matthew Borie

Matthew Borie has 12 years of aviation security and intelligence experience in the public and private sectors. Matthew is currently the Head of Analysis at Osprey Flight Solutions. Previously, Matthew worked as an intelligence analyst at the MedAire & Control Risks Aviation Security Center. Prior to that, he completed an eight-year enlistment in the US Air Force, serving as an Operations Intelligence Craftsman. During his Air Force career, Matthew provided intelligence support to fighter aircraft operations, including a deployment to a location in Southeast Asia; he also completed deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Matthew holds Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees in Intelligence Studies from American Military University (AMU) and, in August 2015, completed a Master’s Degree in National Security Studies from AMU, followed by a Graduate Certificate in Terrorism Studies in December 2017.