SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – The Dominican and Colombian Air Forces carried out joint exercises over the Caribbean this week, a show of commitment to securing air space that criminal organizations use to move narcotics.
Scheduled to conclude Sept. 14, the exercises are “intended to strengthen controls and prevent the misuse of airspace for transnational trafficking of illicit substances,” the Colombian Air Force said in a prepared statement.
This is the fourth consecutive year the nations have met for such exercises.
The exercises replicate scenarios in which illicit flights between South America and the Caribbean are detected. The planes are then engaged by Air Force fighter jets and forced to land at air bases where ground crews train for their arrival.
Narco-traffickers have relied on small planes, filled with cocaine, to move the illicit drug from South America through the Caribbean to islands like Hispaniola – shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic – and Central America. Most of the hundreds of flights depart from near Colombia’s border with Venezuela and pass over the Caribbean before heading west toward Central America or continuing on to Caribbean islands.
The exercises are key to helping the two air forces identify their weaknesses in areas like communication and operational details, the Colombian Air Force said in a prepared statement.
The exercises draw on real world lessons, officials said. In the four years since the joint training program began, the two countries have teamed to intercept 158 planes and seize 4,851 kilograms of narcotics drugs.
The Colombian Air Force said that joint missions during the past 20 months have resulted in successful operations “denying drug traffickers revenues worth [more than] US$121 million.”
The training is a high priority for Dominican officials as well, who have made securing their airspace a priority in recent years. Illicit drug flights from South America were, for several years, a preferred method of transporting drugs into the Caribbean country.
In 2007, for example, officials believe at least 200 illicit flights buzzed over the country and dropped bundles of cocaine to criminal networks who moved them on through other routes.
The Dominican Republic was one of the largest recipients in the Western hemisphere of so-called “narcoplanes.” The country turned to Brazilian-made Super Tucano turboprops, the same remedy that Colombia employed to fight the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorist group.
By 2012, the Dominican Air Force said the number of drug flights had been reduced to zero, and that narco-traffickers were turning to maritime smuggling routes to bring drugs into the country.
Even with the successful elimination of drug flights, the training is seen as important. Faced with a crackdown in Mexico and Central America, narco-traffickers are increasingly targeting the Caribbean as a route to move their product.