Air Transportation and the Cocaine Industry

by Major Eric L. Lamberson

In all the wars since the close of World War II, developing countries have been the battlegrounds. One could describe more than ninety percent of these conflicts as low intensity, despite the involvement of the United States or the former Soviet Union. There is no reason to expect this trend to change in the next few years. Indeed, in the 1990s the United States has been involved in counterdrug operations in Latin America; humanitarian support in Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti; and conflicts in Southwest Asia and the former Yugoslavian republics. Of these, the counterdrug effort against the cocaine industry in Latin  America  is  the  only  low-intensity conflict that directly threatens the national security of the United States.

The roles that Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia play in the cocaine industry vary from country to country, but each continues to be important to the industry as it exists today. The cocaine industry involves five distinct but mutually dependent processes:

In the paragraphs below, I examine the cocaine industry’s transportation element in South America (a facet that has almost become an industry in itself). I also discuss some of the success that the U.S.-supported, host nation counterdrug operations have achieved over the past several years.

Source Country Example

During the early morning hours of 17 June 1991, the pilot and copilot of a Colombian plane completed their final pre-flight checks and departed from somewhere in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley. On board were 450 kilograms of cocaine base valued at more than $360,000 dollars—the pilot and copilot expected to earn more than $25,000 each for a flight that should have lasted only six or seven hours. Mid-way into the trip, SUPPORT JUSTICE II operational elements detected the plane. Within the hour, Peruvian Air Force A-37s intercepted   the   Colombians   and directed them to fly to Andoas, Peru (the A-37s’ home base). The Colombian pilot tried to evade the Peruvian interceptors and damaged his plane in the attempt. The drug trafficking plane eventually crossed the Peru-Ecuador border and was later discovered on a sandbar in a jungle river. Ecuadorian authorities arrested the crew later in the day but they did not recover the cargo. When the crew of the plane realized that they were not going to evade the law enforcement authorities successfully, they jettisoned the cocaine to prevent its capture.

Counterdrug Efforts against the Air Transportation System

The example described above was one of the first successes of the early SUPPORT JUSTICE efforts—there have been many more. For the past nine years, the U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) has been       supporting counterdrug operations with other Federal agencies and friendly nations in Latin America. Operations SUPPORT JUSTICE, LASER STRIKE, and  others are a series of joint U.S. and host nation counterdrug efforts designed to disrupt air transshipment operations of cocaine. The primary goal of these operations is cocaine supply reduction through drug transshipment interdiction, destruction of cocaine production facilities, and dismantling of the cocaine trafficking organizations. While these operations will not solve the complex social phenomenon of drug abuse, they play a significant role in the overall counterdrug strategy.

A critical element of the overarching counterdrug strategy is interdiction of air transshipment between Peru and Colombia. A  look at these air interdiction operations is important because they have provided documented evidence of this success. The SUPPORT  JUSTICE  series  and LASER STRIKE operations have provided several insights into the difficulty of stopping the drug flow from coca source countries into Colombia. Interdicting these shipments is the key to reducing the flow of cocaine base into Colombia and thereby reducing the supply of cocaine available for smuggling into the United States. In the past several years, there have been some real successes.

Normal Trafficking Method

Air transportation is the most timely and cost effective means of shipping cocaine products internally within Peru and Bolivia as well as internationally to Colombia. Prior to the SUPPORT JUSTICE operations, traffickers only shipped a small percentage of cocaine base by river because most significant international river systems in the Peru-Colombia border region flow primarily west to east. In addition, river shipments took much longer to complete and ran a greater risk of losing the cocaine base to law enforcement operations or spoilage. The short transit time that air transportation represented and the geographical features of the various river systems limited the international river systems’ usefulness for drug shipments.

At one time, counterdrug authorities believed that traffickers shipped 90 percent of Peruvian cocaine base directly to Colombia via small civil aviation aircraft. These planes illegally entered Peruvian airspace and flew without legitimate flight plans. Shipment methods varied depending on the circumstances and the level of counter- drug pressure. Whether the aircraft originated from a Colombian or Peruvian trafficking group, the method for loading followed the same pattern.

The traffickers stored the cocaine base in warehouses near the landing strip just before pickup time. While the aircraft was preparing to land, they trucked the shipment to the airstrip. Once the aircraft had landed, they immediately loaded the cocaine base on the plane, with a turnaround time as swift as five minutes. The planes refueled from internal tanks during flight. The traffickers typically timed their flights to avoid routes that transited areas where air traffic control radar could detect their movements.

They also timed their arrivals and departures to take advantage of periods when potential Peruvian Air Force air intercept operations were unlikely to occur due to darkness or weather conditions. The SUPPORT JUSTICE operations and their successors have significantly changed this picture.

Direct trafficker reactions to the SUPPORT JUSTICE and LASER STRIKE operations are good measures of operational effectiveness. During the early stages of SUPPORT JUSTICE, counterdrug authorities developed a six-month trafficking baseline during periods of normal trafficker operations (i.e., when no enhanced counterdrug operations were occurring). The counterdrug authorities then compared this normal trafficking pattern to trafficking operations during Operations SUPPORT JUSTICE II and SUPPORT JUSTICE III. The conclusion: SUPPORT JUSTICE had a significant impact on illicit aerial drug transshipments, literally shutting down the drug flow to Colombia on several occasions.

Unfortunately, during the early stages of the SUPPORT JUSTICE operations, this initial impact was short-lived because the drug traffickers always found loopholes that allowed them to continue their illicit air shipments of drugs. However, lessons learned in SUPPORT JUSTICE and applied in LASER STRIKE and subsequent oper- ations have virtually shut down air operations originating in or entering Peruvian air space. Now, Colombian pilots rarely enter Peruvian air space—they fear the Peruvian Air Force’s ability to intercept their flights.1

The Shift to Brazil

The SUPPORT JUSTICE and LASER STRIKE operations forced traffickers to alter their flight routes. In the 1992 through 1993 time- frame, traffickers began using flights with multiple legs to move their drug shipments. They started staging shorter duration daylight flights   into   the   northern   Peru-Colombia border area where they would refuel and continue to clandestine airstrips along the Peru-Brazil border. These Brazilian airstrips and clandestine airstrips in eastern Peru became primary staging areas. The Peruvian traffickers would transport their cocaine base—typically by river—to airstrips in eastern Peru. Colombian or Brazilian planes would depart from airstrips in Brazil, make a low-level dash into Peru, load the drugs, and return to Brazilian air space as quickly as possible. The traffickers would then refuel their aircraft and continue to Colombia.

Some airfields in western Peru continue to support flights via Ecuador to Colombia; however, as Figure 1 shows, the vast majority of Peru-Colombia drug shipments now use the Brazilian corridor.2 Brazil serves primarily as a transit route for cocaine base and other illicit drug-precursor products moving from cultivation areas in Bolivia and Peru to processing laboratories in Colombia. Brazil’s vast and largely uncontrolled Amazon Region provides the ideal environment for an “air bridge” serving the drug traffickers’ aircraft traversing the country’s western region. Brazil also has an extensive river network that allows drug traffickers to transport their drugs to Atlantic ports for transshipment onward. This river network also provides a means to transport precursor chemicals from Brazil and other manufacturing countries to narcotics processing laboratories in Colombia and Bolivia.

Brazil is also a significant transit route for drugs bound from neighboring countries to North America and Europe. This developed in the 1993-1995 timeframe when drug traffickers began to use Brazil to avoid Operation SUPPORT JUSTICE and Drug Enforcement Agency-(DEA) sponsored counter-drug operations. During this period, Brazilian authorities saw an increase in Brazilian participation in the drug transportation industry—this trend continued under Operation LASER STRIKE and  ultimately caused the Brazilian Government to become more concerned about illegal air incursions into Brazilian territory. A side effect of the traffickers using Brazilian air space was that the Brazilian aerotaxi companies and others who owned small civil aviation aircraft became more interested in the profits available through drug transportation and many became  “part-time”  traffickers  offering   transportation services  to trafficking organizations.

Brazilian Counterdrug Initiatives

In 1996, the DEA Brasilia Country Office and USSOUTHCOM’s Brazil Tactical Analysis Team (TAT) began increasing their support to the Brazilian Federal Police efforts to counter drug trafficking using Brazil’s air space. In early 1998, the Brazilian Congress passed and President Fernando Henrique Cardoso signed into law a bill that would permit Brazilian authorities to use force against suspected drug traffickers’ aircraft.3

Brazil’s commitment to fighting drug trafficking has noticeably increased over the past several years. Brazil’s efforts to interdict the “air bridge” across Western Brazil in the 1997 though 1999 timeframe continue to disrupt the cocaine trafficker’s abilities to ship drug products though Brazil.

The Brazilian Federal Police (DPF) continue to increase the tempo of their counterdrug operations in the “Legal Amazon” region. The DPF conducted their Operation OTORONGO in 1997 through 1998, targeting the traffickers’ transportation infrastructure in the Amazon Region. OTORONGO targeted the trafficker infrastructure, particularly clandestine airstrips. Unlike neighboring countries, clandestine airstrips in Brazil typically are in extremely remote areas—often only accessed by river or on foot. When Brazilian authorities destroy these airstrips, it places a much greater burden on traffickers who depend upon the airstrips for safe haven or refueling.

The Brazilian Federal Police also implemented an Aviation Fuel Control Program (CAPA) in 1998. The Federal Police designed this three-phase program to establish control of aviation fuel sales and implement a mechanism to discover unauthorized flights or landings in the Brazilian states bordering Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia. The DPF has fourteen functioning CAPA sites in the Amazonas, Roraima, Acre, Rondonia, and Mato Grosso states. Between October 1997 and mid-1998, the DPF seized 13 aircraft, identified 157 suspect aircraft, performed cocaine residue sweeps of 71 aircraft, and identified 98 pilots whom the DPF now wants for questioning as a result of CAPA analysis.

Phase One of CAPA consisted of establishing a regulatory mechanism to control aviation fuel sales in the Amazonas State. This phase established the licensing procedures for aviation fuel retailers and required them to buy their fuel (i.e., the wholesale purchase from the refinery) in 100,000-liter minimum lots. CAPA’s purpose is to prevent independent operators from buying small quantities of fuel and setting up “Joe’s” gas station using 200-liter fuel drums and a hand pump.

CAPA Phase Two established a regulatory mechanism to account for aviation fuel sales, track flight plans-versus-fuel usage for aero-taxi services and private aircraft, and provide “probable cause” to investigate suspicious flights. Phase Two required service station owners to account for every liter of aviation fuel sold using a Brazilian Ministry of Justice-DPF accounting procedure. The fuel retailer and pilot complete a CAPA form (in triplicate) at the point of sale. This form includes the location of the sale, the tail number and model of the plane refueled, the pilot’s name, owner’s name, origin of flight, destination, quantity of fuel purchased, date and time of refueling, and planned departure time. The station owner retains a copy, forwards a copy to the DPF, and one goes with the aircraft. If a station cannot account for every liter of fuel sold, then they lose their license to sell aviation fuel.

In 1997, the DPF purchased a computer program to track the fuel usage of each aircraft. This program has proven to be a valuable analytical tool. For example, let us say a twin-engine King Air completing a two-hour flight would use approximately 800 liters of fuel under normal circumstances. If that aircraft used significantly more fuel during a supposed two-hour flight, something is clearly wrong. The flight-tracking program allows the police to closely approximate fuel usage for a given aircraft during a specified flight time. A chain of refueling forms provides evidence of the flight patterns and the fuel consumption of the aircraft. When significant discrepancies exist between estimated and actual fuel usage, that becomes “probable cause” for police intervention. The DPF then can investigate the pilot and owner’s activities as well as “sweep” or vacuum the plane for cocaine residue.

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Once the DPF implemented Phase Two in the Amazonas State, they began Phase Three, an effort to implement the program in other Legal Amazon States. The program is currently functioning throughout the Legal Amazon (see Figure 2).

CAPA is a remarkable Brazilian DPF initiative and has proven to be an excellent law enforcement tool. Using CAPA, the DPF has stretched their limited personnel resources and ensured that they productively focus their investigative efforts. In November 1997 (a typical month) for example, the DPF  inspected   595   aircraft   and subjected 71 to Operation SWEEP. The DPF also reports that sales of aviation fuel decreased 83 percent between September 1997 and November 1997.

In addition to the fourteen fixed sites, the DPF has established mobile sweep teams to go to noncommercial airfields and to review the paperwork of “noncommercial” fuel buyers (e.g., farmers, small companies, etc.). These consumers are a potential problem. In February 1998, the DPF seized an aircraft, 207 kilos of cocaine, and a farm with equipment (estimated to be worth more than $500,000). The owner of the seized property had a large tank for refueling aircraft. Clearly, these smaller operators could divert fuel because they buy it for a local refueling site; however, the DPF is working to close that loophole as well.

Regardless of the potential loopholes in the CAPA program, it is clearly affecting trafficking patterns. In December 1997, the DPF seized an aircraft, $25,000 and 6,000 liters of aviation fuel as well as arresting four Colombians and two Brazilians at a clandestine airstrip in Rondonia state east of Porto Velho. Information developed during this operation indicated that the traffickers constructed the airstrip to get around refueling difficulties that they were experiencing in the Amazonas State. This location of this airstrip permitted road access from other parts of Brazil and the traffickers had purchased the fuel outside the Legal Amazon and trucked it to the airstrip.

Other indications of trafficker reactions  have surfaced as well. Some reports indicated that Colombian traffickers were trying to move into Bolivia. Their goal was to set up river and ground smuggling routes for cocaine HCl through Brazil and Chile. These reports quoted sources who implied that the Colombian traffickers were experiencing difficulties moving their products due to efforts against the air bridge and refueling problems in Brazil and that they were looking for alternate routes.


Brazilian efforts against the cocaine transportation infrastructure operating in Brazil have had a significant impact. CAPA offers a method that places an additional burden on traffickers seeking to move their drug products by air. The CAPA program also provides “probable cause” for detaining and searching an aircraft. Once the DPF put CAPA in place, the drop in aviation fuel sales coincided with an apparent drop in illegal flights entering Brazil. This is a strong indicator that CAPA was a substantial deterrent to “part-time traffickers” who provide transportation services, but who otherwise do not traffic in drugs. Although CAPA and the other Brazilian efforts do not provide the final answer to the air transportation interdiction problem, if the neighboring countries implemented a program similar to CAPA, this would put significant pressure on traffickers who would have decreasing sources for aviation fuel.

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1. Author’s personal knowledge.

2. Consolidated Counterdrug Database, 1998.

3. Healy, Patrick; Fitzpatrick, Jeffrey; and Lamberson, Eric L., “Counterdrug Situation, Programs, and Initiatives—Brazil”,  27 May 1998, page.

Major Eric Lamberson is currently the 748th MI Battalion Executive Officer. He enlisted in the U.S. Army as an Infantryman and served in the 82d Airborne Division and the 3d Infantry Regiment during his enlistment. In 1979, he departed active duty and entered the Army Reserve as a Combat Engineer (12B). During his Reserve tour, he served as an instructor at the Minewarfare and Demolitions Branch of the Engineer School as well as the Fort Belvoir Basic Noncommissioned Officer Course. Commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserve after completing the Georgetown University Reserve Officer Training Corps program, he transferred to the AC where he served as a Combat Electronic Warfare Intelligence (CEWI) Electronic Warfare Platoon Leader and Company Executive Officer in the Tactical Support Center CEWI until his assignment to the U.S. Army Field Station–San Antonio. At the USAFS (later redesignated the 748th MI Battalion), he served as a company commander and the G-Group Operations Officer and as the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) J2 Panama Analysis Division Branch Chief during post-JUST CAUSE operations in Panama. He served as the USSOUTHCOM Peru Tactical Analysis Team Commander in Lima, Peru, and commanded the USSOUTHCOM Brazil Tactical Analysis Team in 1996 and 1998. MAJ Lamberson earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from George Mason University in International Economics and International Relations and has a Master of Arts degree in Latin American Studies from Tulane University. He is a graduate of both the Argentine Army Command and General Staff College resident course and the Brazilian Army CGSC resident course. Readers may contact him at [email protected] or telephonically (210) 671-2365 or DSN 473-2365.