Sunday, April 02, 2006

Disposable Planes

Stopping cocaine: U.S. radar spots planes, Guatemalan army destroy the airstrips
13:41:03 EDT Apr 2, 2006

EL SACRIFICIO, Guatemala (AP) - Huddled together aboard two vintage tanks, 40 soldiers plow through dense jungle on a four-hour journey into a little-known battlefield of the drug war. Their mission, here in Guatemala's wild north: to blow up dozens of clandestine airstrips used by planes laden with Colombian cocaine.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates 70 per cent of the cocaine that ends up in the United States passes through Central America.

Guatemala's sparsely inhabited Peten region is the last stop before the drugs cross into Mexico on their way north. It is here that Guatemalan drug-trafficking organizations serve as a link between their Mexican and Colombian counterparts, unloading and splitting up tonnes of cocaine into smaller shipments that can be transported more easily over land.

It's an efficient operation, say army officials in Guatemala's Interinstitutional Northern Task Force; a crew of 20 to 30 traffickers marks each airstrip with lights. The pilot is whisked out of the plane, along with any revealing flight documents, is ferried away toward Guatemala City, and flies back to Colombia on false papers.

Meanwhile the cocaine is loaded onto four-wheel-drive trucks that race to the nearest usable road, where other trucks wait to drive the load across the Mexican border, a half-hour away.

It's too risky to fly the plane back, so it's set on fire to destroy evidence - a small price to pay against the millions made with each shipment. The entire operation takes a half-hour at most, officials say.

Soldiers based out of Campo Xan, 29 kilometres south of the Mexican border, have discovered at least 45 abandoned airplanes scattered over 18 clandestine airstrips.

"There is one airstrip that has 31 burned-out airplanes," said Col. Mark Wilkins, the senior U.S. military official based in Guatemala. "We thought the situation was bad, but statistics like that make us reflect on just how well established the drug traffickers are in Peten."

Peten has been under-policed since the army was trimmed by two-thirds following the end of Guatemala's 36-year civil war in 1996. Also, Interior Minister Carlos Vielman acknowledges the majority of government institutions are infiltrated by organized crime.

The drug-fighting police have been at the centre of scandals ranging from the theft of a tonne of cocaine from its warehouse in 2003 to the arrest five months ago of its chief on drug trafficking charges.

But the onslaught against the airstrips appears to be working. Last year, U.S. officials told Guatemala their radar had detected 18 clandestine flights landing in the Peten area. But for the past three months, no flight has been spotted, the Guatemalan army says.

The Guatemalan government took the initiative to go back into the region, and is now "working closely with the U.S.," Deputy Interior Minister Julio Godoy said.

The army sends 40 to 80 soldiers from Campo Xan to an airstrip to be seeded with explosives, leaving craters to impede landings.

But the military must contend with antiquated equipment - the tanks are M113s from the mid-1970s - as well as local farmers who appear in some cases to be allied with the drug traffickers.

Thousands of farmers have established 37 squatter communities in a nature reserve near the Mexican border and have blazed a 40-kilometre trail for drug shipments as well as illegal immigrants, officials say.

Interior Minister Vielman says the traffickers have enlisted the land invaders "as a buffer to maintain the areas clear."

In exchange, the traffickers provide the community with electric generators and cars to transport them to the nearest health clinic, said the task force leader in charge of eliminating the airstrips, who identified himself only as Col. Rodrigo. Fearing repercussions, task-force officers use aliases.

In the squatter village of El Sacrificio, or The Sacrifice, community members seem eager to talk about the many migrants who pass through the area. But they are mute on the subject of drug traffickers.

Vielman said authorities fear Guatemala will go from being a transit country for drugs to yet another place where coca is grown.

"We are at a historical breaking point like that which Colombia experienced from 1985-1990," Vielman said. ". . . We have to prevent it."