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Drug war goes airborne. Better radar, aircraft sought for nabbing smugglers

By John DillinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 1986


Federal officials are expected late this month to approve greatly expanded efforts to close America's borders to drug smugglers. A major target of the federal crackdown will be clandestine airplane flights into the United States by smugglers.

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Thousands of planes carrying drugs secretly fly into the US every year by flying around, or under, radar detection systems. Officials say the aerial smugglers are responsible for about two-thirds of the cocaine brought into this country.

Several members of Congress have been pushing hard for new equipment to close the gaps in US radar coverage. One plan calls for about half a dozen large, radar-equipped balloons to be suspended along the border with Mexico, where many drug flights originate.

Congressional sources say that next Friday the National Drug Enforcement Policy Board will probably act on a wide range of options to expand antidrug operations. The proposals are understood to call for a larger military role in the effort to intercept drug shipments.

The policy board is chaired by Attorney General Edwin E. Meese III. It includes a number of other Cabinet officers, as well as William J. Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The US security system against drug smugglers along the Southern border is described as ``severely inadequate'' by officials in Congress and in the Reagan administration. One close observer describes the situation this way:

``You could fly a 10-story building anywhere across the southwest border of the US at 14,000 feet without getting picked up by any radar.''

Another federal official puts it more simply: The US is ``as naked as a newborn baby.''

Problems are worst in the West and Southwest, but the situation is also considered serious in the arc of states from Virginia to Florida to Texas.

Government investigators say that at least 2,500 illegal drug flights, and perhaps more, entered the US during the past year. Only 250 of those were interdicted by federal agencies. In some cases, the smugglers were caught only because their aircraft crashed.

The drug flights originate in South and Central America, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and Mexico. Some are long-range aircraft that can fly from South America all the way to Montana or Wyoming without refueling. Pilots earn as much as $100,000 per flight.

The drug flights are also major sources of marijuana and heroin.

Against this fleet of drug invaders, the US government has thrown its relatively puny civilian air force, under the command of such agencies as the US Customs Service.

It's an unequal contest. Often the drug-running planes can fly faster, farther, and higher than federal aircraft. So even when drug-smuggling planes are spotted, they are often able to escape. But in most cases, federal agents can't even find the drug-carrying aircraft as they move into US territory.

There are many stories of poorly equipped federal officials, without radar or other modern devices, trying to spot or track smuggler aircraft with only the use of binoculars.

One idea gaining support on Capitol Hill is to press the air arm of the National Guard into service. Recent hearings before the House Government Operations subcommittee on information, justice, and agriculture heard a proposal to use Air National Guard units operating out of West Virginia, Georgia, Texas, and California in an effort to spot smugglers.