LATIN AMERICA NEWS – Guatemala, Brazil and Bolivia are acquiring sophisticated ground-based and airborne radar systems.
In Guatemala, the government is installing the first of four first-generation radars able to detect the altitude, speed and size of aircraft entering the country.
“These radars will provide us with records of legal and illegal flights and monitor unauthorized flights,” Minister of Defense Manuel López Ambroio recently told the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre.
The Ministry of Defense is currently building the platform in southern Guatemala where the first radar will be located. It’s expected to become operational in September, according to spokesperson Ismael Cifuentes.
“The idea is to install first generation [radars] as they have a higher capacity than the second [generation] we use now, being able to detect aircraft at 250 or 300 kilometers, while the ones we use now can reach only 150 or 200 kilometers,” Cifuentes said. “The new radars detect any aircraft entering Guatemalan airspace, both authorized [and] unauthorized.”
Authorities estimate the other three radars should be installed in the north, east and center of the country by the second half of 2015. The government will replace the old equipment used by the Guatemalan Air Force, according to media reports.
“The Guatemalan Air Force will manage the radars in close collaboration with the Ministry of Defense,” Minister of the Interior Mauricio López Bonilla said.
Brig. Gen. Héctor Espinoza, the Guatemalan Air Force’s commander, told local press the radars cost US$34 million, covered by a loan from Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria approved by the Guatemalan Congress in 2012.
Guatemala is a transit country for South American drugs heading to North America. It’s estimated that 86% of the drugs that enter the United States use Central America for transport, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2014 report “International Narcotics Control Strategy.”
Cifuentes said narco-traffickers smuggle drugs aboard illegal airplanes and often burn the aircraft after removing the narcotics. They then move the shipment in vehicles, on horseback or by boat. Other times, the aircraft continues on its journey.
Between January and June 12, 1,391 kilograms of cocaine were seized. In all of 2013, 3,406 kilograms of the drug were confiscated, according to the National Civil Police. Additionally, Guatemala destroyed over 50 illegal landing strips last year, according to press reports.
The C41 will coordinate the steps to follow with the Airspace Interdiction Task Force, Anti-narcotics and Anti-terrorism Taskforce, the Office of the Deputy Director for Anti-narcotics Information Analysis and the Tecún Umán Taskforce at the Ministry of the Interior, according to Cifuentes.
Other institutions that receive information include the Special Naval Forces, the Kaibiles Special Military Operations Group, the Humanitarian Rescue Unit, the Brigade for Mountain and Jungle Operations and the regular units of the Sixth Army Brigade.
Particularly useful will be the six Super Huey helicopters donated in 2013 by the United States and assigned to the Ministry of the Interior to use in counter-narcotics operations.
When an unauthorized aircraft is detected, Defense and Interior ministries will work together to detain the aircraft if it lands in Guatemala, according to Cifuentes. If the aircraft doesn’t land in the Central American nation, they will notify the next country on its flight path so it can be monitored.
End of ‘open skies’
“[The installation of these radars] puts an end to the traditional open skies or ‘coca’ skies policy, where the lack of technology meant Central America had become a paradise for hundreds of small and medium-sized aircraft that entered and exited the region in complete freedom,” said David Martínez-Amador, an expert in security issues and member of the Criminova-Criminex network, a Mexico-based association that monitors the region. “In this way, seizing an aircraft and its load was a stroke of luck.”
“If they are used properly, they will have a huge impact since the skies will be shielded, making it impossible for aircraft to fly undetected and forcing shipments onto land or into the water,” Martínez-Armador said.
No more ‘coca’ skies over the Amazon
Combating drug trafficking along the 3,400 km-border between Brazil and Bolivia also will feature the use of more advanced radars.
Bolivia, which is the world’s third largest cocaine producer, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, supplies mainly Brazil and Europe.
In May, the Brazilian Air Force received an E-99M radar aircraft, which is an updated model of the aircraft used since 2002 in surveillance and defense operations in the Amazon region. It was the first of five units to be delivered by 2017.
The equipment was used in security operations for the World Cup. The E-99M’s radar has the capacity to simultaneously detect, track and identify a greater number of targets.
The radar aircraft transmits information to Brazilian airspace control centers located on the ground and can also directly guide the actions of aircraft in combat, according to the Brazilian Air Force. Therefore, it is used to track suspicious aircraft.
On April 22 of this year, Bolivian President Evo Morales enacted Law 521, which deals with the security and defense of Bolivian airspace.
The law also provides for the procurement of radars, which may be carried out with international cooperation.
Brazil announced its willingness to assist Bolivia with funding for the purchase of the equipment, according to the daily Folha de S. Paulo. On July 2012, the Bolivian Ministry of Defense and members of the Brazilian Embassy in Bolivia flew over areas in the border region in order to identify strategic locations for installing the equipment, the newspaper reported.
In October 2012, Brazil donated two UH-1H helicopters to Bolivia’s aerial counter-narcotics unit, the Diablos Rojos Aerial Task Force.
In 2005, the two countries signed a cooperation agreement to combat illegal transnational flights. Since 2007, Brazil and Bolivia have carried out joint training, education and military exercises.
*Patrícia Comunello in Porto Alegre, Brazil contributed to this report.