Airmen, drug runners play game of cat and mouse

  • Published
  • By Louis A. Arana-Barradas
  • Air Force Print News
Airmen play a constant game of cat and mouse with the drug runners they search for who try sneaking their cargo into the United States.

Sometimes the Airmen win and sometimes they lose. But they always try to find ways to beat the odds using a combination of sophisticated E-3 Sentry and other aircraft, surface ships, technology, intelligence and teamwork.

And though most Air Force and U.S. government officials acknowledge the drug cartels are still getting drugs into the United States, it is harder for them to do so than before.

"We've looked at the number of intercepts and the number of aircraft destroyed in Columbia before and after we started flying. The number of suspicious aircraft flying has dropped about 80 percent," said Lt. Col. Preston Kise, an air battle manager aboard an E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft.

It is the Sentry aircraft Colombian drug lords fear the most. Circling at 25,000 feet, its huge dome radar can detect ships, boats and aircraft up to 250 miles away.

"Our mission is to fly, find either ships or aircraft carrying drugs, help identify them, and help other aircraft or ships seize the drugs and destroy them," said Colonel Kise. He is assigned to the 965th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron and is deployed to Manta from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.

More commonly called AWACS, the Sentry is the Air Force's main weapon in the war on drugs. The sophisticated surveillance aircraft fly 11- to 14-hour missions with a crew of 20 to 25 Airmen working arrays of radar and other sensors. Airmen search an area of the eastern Pacific Ocean the size of the continental United States. The aircraft also continue flying missions to deter aircraft from moving drugs around Colombia.

"But we're mostly looking for 'go-fast' boats, as they're called -- small boats about 50 to 60 feet in length -- or fishing vessels typically not in areas where people fish," said the colonel, who is from Skaneateles, N.Y.

Most drug runners now rely on boats since the AWACS has all but stopped the small-plane trafficking of drugs. As a joint task force and authorities in a host of Central and South American countries hunt for them, the traffickers have had to improvise.

Late last year, U.S. and Costa Rican coast guard officials seized a homemade 50-foot mini submarine packed with three tons of cocaine off the Costa Rican coast.

"The AWACS fly every day," keeping the pressure on the drug cartels, said Lt. Col. Javier Delucca. The colonel is the outgoing commander of the 478th Expeditionary Operations Squadron. The unit provides the support needed by the flying units that deploy to Manta.

The colonel said the cat is pouncing on the mouse much more frequently. He said Manta-based aircrews flew more than 1,200 missions in 2006 and helped seize more than 258 tons of illegal drugs that had a nearly $5.2 billion street value. Through the end of July 2007, the AWACS crews have flown more than 800 missions, which helped net more than 125 tons of drugs worth about $2.4 billion.

"We're on track to exceed (last year's figures)," said Colonel Delucca, from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

AWACS overhead are a strong deterrent. And the aircraft's radar increases the Airmen's ability to find and identify drug runners. AWACS crews pass invaluable information on to their partners in the war on drugs, he said.

"Our part in the war makes it a lot easier for other people to do their jobs," Colonel Delucca said.

AWACS crews report their findings and get their search orders from the Joint Interagency Task Force South at Naval Air Station Key West, Fla. The task force is the headquarters for the region's counterdrug effort. The headquarters operators direct surveillance flights, based mostly on information gathered from human intelligence sources, and relay actions for task force members to take when they find drug runners.
The squadron is in the third month of a four-month tour at Manta, a coastal port city about 180 miles southwest of Ecuador's capital city of Quito. The city is a busy fishing and commercial port and hundreds of fishing boats dot its shores. Visiting ocean liners deposit vacationers who take advantage of the city's beaches, nightlife and many seafood restaurants.

Ecuador lies between the world's top three cocaine producers: Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. So the bustling port makes Manta an attractive transit point for a trafficker, said Amalia Reyes, vice director of a school for handicapped children Manta Airmen have adopted.

She said the streets of Manta are much more dangerous today than even two years ago, something she blames on the cocaine trade. And without outside help, Ecuador could have a more serious drug problem.

"We can't even control the contraband trade in natural gas in our country," Ms. Reyes said. "So how are we going to stop the growth of the cocaine trade if we don't have the means?"

Ms. Reyes, who came to Manta from Guayaquil 25 years ago, said many others in Manta feel as she does and are concerned about their city's feature. People fear that when the U.S. drug hunters are gone from their city, Manta could turn into a haven for Colombian drug cartels.

"We don't want that. So the people of Manta will fight to keep the base at Manta," she said. "We need their help."

However, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa vowed not to renew a 10-year bilateral agreement with the United States, signed in 1999, that allows a small group of American forces to operate eight aircraft from Manta's Eloy Alfaro Air Base, home of the Ecuadorian air force's Combat Wing 23.

Colonel Delucca hopes for a renewed agreement that allows Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and U.S. Customs Airmen to continue doing their job from Manta. He said the forward operating location is the logical place from which to fly the counterdrug mission because of its strategic location between the drug source nations.

"But we'll just have to wait and see," the colonel said.

In the meantime, the AWACS continue their daily vigilance. And to keep them flying, there is also a KC-135 Stratotanker squadron deployed to Manta.

The 134th Air Refueling Wing arrived at the base Aug. 1 for a 30-day rotation. It flew its first mission the day after arriving. But the unit's nearly 50-year-old tanker sprung a fuel leak in one of its massive tanks that knocked it out of action. The next day, however, without impacting the AWACS mission, another aircraft flew down from the unit's home base at McGee-Tyson Air National Guard Base, Tenn. -- refueling an AWACS before touching down at Manta.

The unit's deployed operations officer and pilot Lt. Col. Lee Hartley said the tanker mission plays a vital role in the effectiveness of the AWACS. Aerial refueling allows the surveillance aircraft to stay in the air half a day.

Refueling the huge AWACS can be tricky, he said.

"Heavier airplanes [like AWACS] have bigger bow waves. The bigger the airplane, normally, the more it pushes our airplane around in the sky," said Colonel Hartley, of Maryville, Tenn.

This can create "some significant hurdles" for the boom operators to overcome while trying to guide the refueling boom to make an effective contact," Colonel Hartley said. "But we've got the best [boom operators] in the business, for sure."

As the AWACS-tanker duo continues its important mission, Colonel Delucca said the Airmen and civilian workers of the operations squadron will continue providing them the support they need to remain an effective weapon in the war on drugs.

"We have overwhelming support, not only from the Ecuadorian air force here at Manta but from the community," Colonel Delucca said. "Our relationships are real strong."