THE United States is locked in an escalating air war with drug smugglers along its entire southern border. So far, the US is losing.
South American drug cartels, aided by several hundred highly paid pilots, are flying thousands of pounds of cocaine every month past US defenses. The Customs Service estimates that 22 percent of all cocaine arriving in the US comes by air, and that percentage is growing.
Federal agents are fighting back with jet tracking planes, radar, high-speed Blackhawk helicopters, and - most recently - help from the US military. The struggle is costing taxpayers more than $4 million a week.
Here at Homestead Air Force Base, Customs aircraft take off around the clock to scan the skies and seas for smugglers. Late one recent afternoon, a patrol plane roared toward the south, to the coast of Cuba, in search of drug planes. Another aircraft, designed for long, slow-speed patrols, headed east, to watch for smuggler boats in the Atlantic.
Frustrated federal agents are urging that US pilots be given permission to shoot down drug planes, which now get away. The idea, once ridiculed, is gaining support in Congress.
Officials admit that it could be at least two or three years before they gain better control over the air routes that lead from the coke labs of Colombia to the main streets of America.
But federal authorities remain hopeful that substantial progress can eventually be made. Drug flights into south Florida already are down to almost zero. Radar coverage in the Southeast is expanding. The military is throwing new equipment and manpower into the fray.
Furthermore, as the US boosts its efforts, authorities think they may have figured out the drug cartels' weakest link - the pilots.
Smuggler-pilots fly for one major reason: greed. Most are Americans. They get as much as $500,000 for a single flight. But officials say if the pilots faced a greater likelihood of capture and imprisonment, the money they get would not look so attractive. If flying to the US becomes too chancy, even well-paid pilots may be unwilling to take the risk.
Officials calculate that if the odds of capture could be raised to 1 in 4, pilots might not fly.
Already, smuggler-pilots are showing signs of caution. They are avoiding south Florida, where radar coverage has been expanded and Blackhawks stand ready to hunt them down.
Instead, some pilots are detouring around known radar stations to carry their loads into Gulf Coast states like Mississippi. Others are air-dropping cargoes of cocaine to waiting speedboats in the Bahamas. Still others are flying into Mexico, where trucks wait to take the cocaine across the Southwestern US border.
Traffickers are also directing new attention to Puerto Rico. Hurricane Hugo caused heavy damage to radar facilities and left the western part of the island unguarded. Once drugs arrive, they can be shipped to US cities without inspection by US Customs.
``Puerto Rico is the new gateway for coke,'' says Robert Viator, a US Customs pilot.
Customs has rushed extra planes and manpower to Puerto Rico to try to close the radar gap.
Although most cocaine reaches the US by boat, air shipments play a vital role in the drug cartels' distribution network. Most airborne coke comes aboard small, private planes.
Mr. Viator notes that back in the early 1980s, traffickers had ``free rein'' to fly narcotics - mostly marijuana - to the US. In 1985, smugglers turned their attention to cocaine. For the drug cartels, air transport provides a highly efficient system.
``Within 24 hours of coke being manufactured in Colombia, it can be on the streets in the US,'' Viator says.
Vice Adm. James Irwin, who oversees military efforts against drugs in the Caribbean region, says the cartels' need for pilots provides the US with an important opportunity.
There are only a few hundred pilots working for the cartels. They are daring airmen, many with thousands of hours of flying time, and trusted by cartel bosses.
Admiral Irwin says: ``Aircraft are fairly expensive ... but [the cartels] can buy airplanes. But to get pilots to continue to go and come, and that they can trust, that's a tough one....
``The pilot is very important. That probably is the key. [Pilots are] the most expensive, the most critical thing'' in the cartels' distribution chain.
Putting pressure on drug pilots has become a top priority for US drug fighters. New radars to track them are installed at Key West; Cudjoe Key, Fla.; Guant'anamo Bay, Cuba; Jamaica; Puerto Rico; Panama; and Honduras.
New radar also is slated for various Caribbean islands, as well as Costa Rica and Venezuela.
Meanwhile, Congress has appropriated $100 million to buy more aerostats, balloons equipped with radar that can scan hundreds of miles of border.
Not far from Homestead, the government also is opening a multimillion-dollar command-and-control center that will coordinate drug-fighting units of the Coast Guard and Customs. And in Key West, the military recently opened Joint Task Force Four, its Caribbean drug detection headquarters, under Admiral Irwin's command.
Eventually there should be airborne radar across the entire Southern frontier of the US, from California to Florida. On the eastern end, the radar net will reach far out to sea.
Critics of this air-interdiction effort say that it works - but not well enough. Too many other avenues are available, even if the air corridor is completely closed.
The General Accounting Office, in a June 1989 study, concluded: ``While more improvements in detection and response capabilities may further deter air smuggling, gaps will remain in the air interdiction system, and other smuggling avenues will still be available....''
Some agents who fight air traffickers, however, point out that air is the preferred smuggling method of the drug kingpins. It involves one pilot, one plane, one customer - a simple transaction.
In contrast, smuggling by small boats can involve several steps: a large ``mother'' ship, numerous small boats and their crews, and a more complicated delivery system in the US - all places where things can go wrong.
As public anger over drugs increases, pressure will grow to close the air routes to traffickers. The next three years should tell us whether that is possible.
One in a series of occasional articles about US border problems.