On average, the Colombian Air Force detected almost two illegal flights a day flying over the country’s airspace during 2003.
This year, Colombian authorities detected the traces of 639 ships flying without permission and associated with illegal activities. Last year, only five such flights were detected in the country. At the same time that the traces of illegal ships were reduced in Colombia, there was a contrary behavior in the flights detected in the airspace of Venezuela.
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One of the great achievements of the FAC has been to substantially reduce illegal flights in the national airspace; aircraft without flight plans, without registration or with false registration that are used to transport drugs, weapons or money and that by the way put the safety of commercial flights at risk.
In 2003, the FAC led an entire operational plan to confront cocaine trafficking using airspace. Since that year, a record of illegal flights has been kept, detecting traces in national territory.
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“To see and control what is moving in the air, you need a comprehensive air defense system, which began to take shape 30 years ago”, the commander of the Air Force, General Ramsés Rueda, told EL TIEMPO.
According to the official, with the support of the United States, the first radar was acquired and, over the years, today our country has one of the most sophisticated air defense systems, “radars that allow air and surface observation, monitoring planes, intelligence planes, platforms and personnel trained to the highest standards, among others”, pointed out General Rueda.
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These efforts led the FAC to combat illegal flights and, in this way, from 639 traces detected in 2003 it went to 43 in 2008. Likewise, parallel to the positive result in the national skies, the transfer of the problem to Venezuela was evidenced, where in 2008 76 irregular flights were registered.
The figure has been growing year after year, while in 2009 in Colombia 16 traces were detected, that same year in the neighboring country there were 102. In 2019, the FAC detected 9 illegal flights over national territory, while in Venezuela there were 256. And in a pandemic, in 2020 the FAC registered 9 in Colombia and 200 in the neighboring country. Last year, 5 illegal traces were reported in Colombia and 146 in Venezuela.
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The FAC commander pointed out that due to the issue of air security, Colombian radars detect irregular flights entering or leaving Venezuela. “Just as (the Venezuelan Air Force, FAV) have radars at the border and they see us, that is normal, that is what the radars are for, among others to guarantee the air safety of international flightssaid the general.
The officer pointed out that there is a binational cooperation agreement with the United States, the Air Bridge Denial (ABD) program, which is the denial of the drug trafficking airlift: “They gave us training and advice.”
He warned that the problem continues, because although the coca no longer leaves Colombia, “Tons of cocaine continue to come out of Venezuela, and that is a transnational problem”.
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Comparative graph of illegal flights between 2003 and 2021
For General Rueda, one of the big problems is the complicity of the Venezuelan authorities in cocaine trafficking, “they do nothing to prevent it”, with the aggravating circumstance that there are no relations between the two countries, so there is no exchange of information.
The uniformed man lamented that Venezuela is an ally of drug traffickers and not of legality, when it is known that drug use claims the lives of millions of people a year.
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Given this situation and the need to combat drug trafficking by air, the Colombian Air Force was commissioned to design a plan or operation to curb crime, and in 2019 Zeus was born.
Zeus in the skies
According to General Rueda, Zeus is not an operation, but rather a strategy that arises to combat “the aerial target, that is, the illegal aircraft at the service of drug trafficking outside the border”.
Along these lines, the FAC’s mission is to defend sovereignty, which implies developing air operations to carry out interdiction.
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For this reason, Zeus has managed to integrate the real-time cooperation of the air forces of the countries, especially over the Caribbean, in the fight against the trafficking of illicit substances, which, after detecting an illegal flight, follow up on radars, platforms and other technological aids to force them to land or locate the point where they would do so so that the drug can be seized and captured on land.
“The flights that leave loaded with coca from Venezuela have as their route islands such as Haiti and countries in Central America such as Guatemala and Mexico.”, General Rueda told this newspaper.
More than 10 crashed aircraft
Brazil is beginning to worry, where illegal flights are increasing on the border with Venezuela.
But the aircraft do not always reach their destination. Zeus has identified that last year 10 aircraft had accidents in Central America, one of them, a Sabreliner 65 type aircraft, with registration XB-OVE.
According to information from the FAC, the Caribbean air force intercepted it (May) and the aircraft crashed in the vicinity of Belize. In Central America, the vast majority of aircraft that manage to land are set on fire by drug traffickers.
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According to the FAC commander, since Zeus was launched, Colombia has participated in 12 operational deployments and “198 airspace control missions, something like 484 flight hours and the seizure of 21.57 tons of cocaine, which is equivalent to approximately 711 million dollars”.
In intelligence activities with the air forces of the Dominican Republic and Guatemala, new routes and collection centers used by transnational criminal groups have been identified.
One of those routes, the official pointed out, is registered from Ecuador, “where irregular traces began to be identified on the border, but the criminals affected the radar of the Ecuadorian authorities. Brazil is beginning to worry, where illegal flights are increasing on the border with Venezuela,” said the FAC commander.
Among the outstanding activities of Zeus in national territory is the one registered on January 15, 2021, “that day the airspace control procedure was executed, in Vichada, where the air defense system detected an aircraft in Venezuelan airspace coming from Brazil and headed for Colombian airspace,” said Rueda, who pointed out that A-29 type combat planes were ordered to take off from the Grupo Aéreo del Oriente.
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The Tucanos intercepted the aircraft as it entered Colombian airspace. It was identified as a twin-engine, type Piper 23, with registration PT-KFN, and was dissuaded from continuing its flight and forced to land in Puerto Carreño, Vichada, where it coordinated with the National Police, which took control of the aircraft. and its crew, of Brazilian nationality, who were placed at the disposal of the judicial authorities.
Results in the USA
Another activity carried out based on the Zeus strategy took place in the United States, where federal agencies dismantled the Aircraft Guaranty Corporation company in 2021, dedicated to the sale of aircraft -especially considered high-performance- without major controls.
After two years of investigations, it was concluded that the aircraft were used by drug trafficking networks.
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Company officials served as intermediaries between the buyer and the seller under the figure of a trust, and thus the illegal organizations obtained the aircraft, “which were used to transport foreign currency from Central America to South America and, later, on the return route. with cocaine”, reads the dossier against the company.
The exchange of information between the air forces of the region allowed the forceful load of evidence against those involved.
The main evidence against the company was the location of a Gulfstream II-type aircraft (February 17, 2021, in Belize), which was forced to land and then immobilized by the authorities, who found 2,310 kilos of cocaine inside and which was on paperwork.
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The company in question registered the acquisition and sale of more than 800 aircraft of all kinds, in fact, it was in charge of marketing jets, from which the seats were removed to give space to 2 and 2.5 tons of the drug.
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