Fingering Smugglers From Four Miles Up

High-flying military planes help intercept a third of the cocaine entering the US

To the untrained eye, it looks like a green blip on a computer screen - one of dozens. But to a young technician aboard one of the most sophisticated surveillance planes in the world, the blip arouses suspicion that airborne drug-runners are crossing America's borders.

On this day, the 24 men on board a military AWACS plane are the eyes of the US government, watching from thin air four miles above the Gulf of Mexico. They're on a war-game training mission, but they're also part of the US effort to use military might in the nation's war on drugs.

AWACS involvement in drug interdiction has gone up and down since the planes were introduced to the Air Force in the 1970s. But over the past two years, spending on drug interdiction has been revived - much of it on quiet detection efforts afforded by technology like AWACS (airborne warning and control system). Last year, AWACS provided information that led to four cocaine interdictions worth $945 million - about 35 percent of all cocaine intercepted coming into the US.

"Interdiction, although it is often bad-mouthed, has to be one of the principal components of the fight against drugs," says a retired military officer who now serves in the president's Office of National Drug Control Policy. "The capstone is the AWACS with their special 'look down' radar. Nothing gets by them when they are up."

As it turns out, the green blip - signifying a small airplane flying low over the ocean, southeast of Florida - was not trafficking in illegal drugs. Capt. Carl Zell, the counterdrugs operations officer on this training mission, had radioed ground control in Panama City, Fla., where officials placed calls asking the small aircraft to identify itself.

"We're looking for any aircraft that behaves in an unusual way," says Captain Zell, as the plane circles lazily over the choppy waters of the Gulf.

Mushroom-bearing aircraft

AWACS aircraft - which look like airliners carrying a huge mushroom on their backs - have been part of the US war on drugs ever since their late-'70s introduction into the Air Force. Today, they're part of an interdiction effort that includes powerful ground-based radars in Texas and Virginia, Navy and Coast Guard ships, and old-fashioned human intelligence gathering.

A sophisticated radar that provides a 360-degree view of a 250-mile area is what makes the AWACS planes so effective. In battle, their mission is to tell commanders the positions of enemy and friendly forces. In the war on drugs, they are on the lookout for any suspicious aircraft or ships that could be ferrying drugs from South or Central America to the US.

All flights out of Tinker Air Force Base - mostly training missions that fly over the southwest borders and the Gulf of Mexico - are practicing war games. But the AWACS planes also fly missions dedicated solely to detecting drug traffickers. Those, which fly over South America in cooperation with "host" countries, usually carry US Customs or Drug Enforcement Administration officials.

The total number of missions is classified, Zell says. The missions' success, he points out, lies not only in the number of interdictions made because of AWACS, but also because the traffickers don't know when the AWACS are watching.

"Our wing has had some very good involvement," says Zell, a lanky captain in the Canadian Air Force temporarily assigned to Tinker AFB as part of a military-cooperation agreement. "We also provide a deterrence when [the traffickers] don't know for sure where we are and when."

Nabbing the big drops

Last year's AWACS-related drug interdictions included tracking a King Air 200 flying from Colombia to Mexico, where it dropped $220 million worth of cocaine. In an even larger interception, AWACS in the eastern Pacific tracked a ship carrying $680 million worth of cocaine from Colombia.

But AWACS surveillance had its biggest success in the early 1980s, when it forced Colombia's major drug dealers from Florida's coast.

"In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pablo Escobar and the boys bought Norman's Key," says Bruce Bagley, a Latin America specialist at the University of Miami. "They used to just fly in their own private airstrip, tranship the drugs from airplanes to speed boats that carried the drugs into south Florida."

The AWACS stopped all that, Mr. Bagley says. But the drug traffickers adjusted, shifting their routes. Still, he says, the AWACS continue to play an important role, intercepting about 15 percent of all illegal drugs entering the US. Without that interference, Bagley says, drugs sold on street corners across America would be even cheaper than they currently are.

David Scott Palmer, a Latin America specialist at Boston University, agrees. "There was an 18 percent reduction in the amount of land cultivated to produce coca leaves in Peru last year," he says. "At least part of that can be traced to the effectiveness of interdiction efforts."


The US has engaged in a long-standing debate over the merits of spending billions to stem the drug supply-line - and the military's role in that effort.

Some antidrug crusaders argue the money would be better spent on education programs to reduce domestic demand - a view that may have swayed the Clinton administration. In 1994, the White House slashed the interdiction budget by more than $300 million - a 28.5 percent cut.

Since then, however, the administration has steadily restored such funding, perhaps stung by the easy availability of high-quality drugs at the lowest prices ever. This year the Department of Defense will spend $957.5 million for interdiction efforts, up $100 million from 1996 expenditures. A good chunk of that will go to detection and monitoring - the type of quiet aid AWACS provides.

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