U.S. won’t send radar data to Honduras in dispute over law to shoot down drug aircraft

McClatchy Foreign StaffApril 1, 2014 

— The U.S. government has ceased providing Honduras with radar tracking information out of concern that a new policy allowing its forces to shoot down aircraft suspected of hauling narcotics does not have enough safeguards to prevent error.

A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa distributed Tuesday said other U.S.-financed counternarcotics programs would not be affected, but that Washington already has ceased sharing certain types of information and assistance with Honduras.

A policy to shoot down drug-laden aircraft has come into favor and fallen out of favor in the past in Latin America, depending partly on the mood in Washington.

Honduran legislators in mid-January approved a law that authorized the nation’s air force to shoot down suspected drug planes on express orders of the defense minister. The law also limits night flights in the country and restricts flights through certain Caribbean provinces commonly used by narcotics smugglers bringing cocaine north from the Andean region.

With its long, sparsely populated Mosquito Coast, Honduras is a major transit country for cocaine moving from Andean countries to the United States.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman, Stephen J. Posivak, said in a statement that the Obama administration would review the Honduran law to determine if aspects “are not compatible with U.S. laws that govern certain types of information and assistance that would support an aerial intercept by the Honduran government.”

Posivak indicated that the decision to cease radar tracking data was unlikely to affect cocaine flows to the United States because “80 to 90 percent of illegal drugs that enter Honduras (do so) via maritime routes,” and not by air.

Bolivia, which both grows coca used in making cocaine and serves as a transit nation for drugs flowing to Brazil, Argentina and even on to Africa and Europe, is also on the cusp of enacting a law to permit the downing of suspect aircraft, although it lacks a sophisticated radar system. The bill already passed the lower house of the Bolivian Congress and is awaiting final Senate approval.

Programs to shoot down cocaine-laden planes have been marked by both dramatic success and tragedy.

At U.S. urging, Peru and Colombia in 1994 began using U.S. aerial intelligence to follow smuggling aircraft. Until 2001, Peru is believed to have shot at least 30 aircraft out of the sky, shutting down a key air link for traffickers between Peru’s coca fields and drug processing laboratories in Colombia’s eastern jungles.

Contractors employed by the Central Intelligence Agency operating in surveillance aircraft worked closely with Peru’s air force to identify suspect planes.

The program came to a dramatic halt in April 2001 when a CIA contract team aboard a surveillance plane working in tandem with a Peruvian fighter jet gave the thumbs-up to shooting down a Cessna over the Amazon. Aboard the Cessna was an American Christian missionary family. A mother and her 7-month-old daughter were killed. The pilot, wounded in the legs, and the father and a son survived an emergency landing.

The mistake led to hearings on Capitol Hill and a significant tightening of the terms in which U.S. intelligence can lead to shooting down a civilian aircraft.

U.S. policymakers, apparently believing that tighter rules would avoid mishaps, began sharing radar tracking with Honduras in 2012.

In July of that year, Honduran air force planes shot down two aircraft in separate incidents off the country’s north coast, not following U.S.-imposed protocol.

“After a four-month stand-down, we resumed information sharing in November 2012 following an exhaustive procedural review and based on a series of remedial steps Honduras undertook to prevent the shoot-down of civilian aircraft,” said a U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Some regional security experts said the halting of radar intelligence sharing by Washington might not curb the desire of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez to halt suspect aircraft flying in remote reaches of the nation.

Honduras is reported to have bought three Israeli radar systems for $30 million last year, with delivery in recent weeks.

“With that, they won’t need to follow U.S. restrictions and protocols. They could be quite trigger happy,” said Adam Isacson, who coordinates the regional security policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit group that promotes human rights and democracy.

“They are going to kill people. They are going to take down some planes,” he said.

Email: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4

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