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Homeland Security

20 August 2003

Aerial Drug Interdiction Program Will Resume in Colombia, Says U.S. Official

U.S. to aid Colombia in defending its airspace from drug traffickers

By Lauren Monsen
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- A newly re-configured aerial interdiction program designed to disrupt drug trafficking will soon make its debut in Colombia, according to a senior State Department official.

Briefing reporters August 19, the official explained that the United States will help the government of Colombia to resume drug interdiction flights, which were suspended in April 2001 after a missionary plane was mistakenly shot down in Peru. The mishap resulted in the deaths of U.S. missionary Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter, prompting authorities to insist on more stringent safety procedures before the anti-drug flight program could be re-launched.

With a stronger emphasis on safety protocols, the Airbridge Denial program is expected to resume in Colombia in a matter of days, the official said. The program will be "an important contribution to [Colombian] President [Alvaro] Uribe's aggressive and successful efforts to defeat illicit drug trafficking in Colombia," she added.

For his part, President Bush is committed to aiding Colombia "in defending its airspace from those who would exploit Colombian skies for narco-trafficking purposes," the official noted. Under the terms of a certification requirement now in effect, it has been determined that "interdiction of aircraft reasonably suspected to be primarily engaged in illicit drug trafficking in [Colombia's] airspace is necessary because of the extraordinary threat posed by illicit drug trafficking to the national security of Colombia," she said. Moreover, it has also been determined that "Colombia has appropriate procedures in place to protect against the innocent loss of life in the air and on the ground in connection with interdiction," she observed.

Since the suspension of the original Airbridge Denial program in 2001, "we have been working with the Colombians to develop a new kind of program that stresses safety and the presumption of innocence," the official told reporters. "Under this program, it is the government of Colombia that assumes operational responsibility while the United States government plays a supporting role and provides safety oversight."

To ensure that safety standards are maintained, the program's certification process will take place each year, the official said. She added that in April 2003 the United States signed a bilateral agreement with the government of Colombia that spells out procedures that will be followed in this program.

The official said that "under the concept of operations, certain aircraft flying in Colombia can be subject to special surveillance by ground and aerial detection assets to determine whether the aircraft is reasonably suspected to be primarily engaged in illicit drug trafficking. The highest priority of the program is to have the intercepted aircraft land at the nearest landing strip, where law enforcement personnel may take control of the aircraft. I must emphasize that the use of deadly force will be undertaken only as a last resort."

After the United States and Colombia had signed the agreement, "we conducted a certification of the program, which was extensive, to ensure that all personnel -- both Colombian and American -- are trained in the safety procedures and that the equipment is operating properly," she pointed out. "The certification also verified that the recommendations that emerged from investigations [of] the previous program have been incorporated and implemented into this new program."

On August 19, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld joined U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Wood in Bogota to meet with Uribe and formally communicate "President Bush's intent to reinstate the program," the official said. "We have completed the internal requirements according to U.S. law. The government of Colombia may begin conducting Airbridge Denial operations in accordance with the procedures established in the agreement, and we expect that the Colombians will begin operations shortly."

Responding to a question about the language difficulties and miscommunication between U.S. and Peruvian personnel that might have contributed to the April 2001 tragedy, the official said: "In the certification exercise that we conducted in May [2003], the language element was heavily emphasized -- and it is heavily emphasized in the agreement that all those participating need to know both languages [Spanish and English]. And there was a certification of language abilities." She said most program participants -- Colombian and American -- are "close to bilingual or bilingual."

The official also confirmed that the pilots involved in the program are Colombian. "It is a Colombian-run program where the Colombians make the decisions," she said. She added that the State Department has contracted with a U.S. company known as Air, Inc., which trained the pilots while negotiations toward a bilateral agreement were taking place.

As the briefing concluded, the State Department official addressed a reporter who asked how the flight program's safety procedures have been enhanced, apart from the new requirement that participants be familiar with both Spanish and English. "One enormously important element was the participation of civil aviation," the official said. "Civil aviation [authorities] participated on the Colombian side in the negotiations and our FAA [Federal Aviation Authority] participated on our side. We needed to ensure ... that the flying public was fully informed of this new program, and that included developing procedures for pilots to be informed of the program," as well. "I would emphasize that that was a big change from the previous program," she said. "We want to make sure that, one, no accidents occur -- and, two, that all the people participating in it are protected."

In Colombia, "we are initiating 24/7 [24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week] duty of the safety monitors which are both on the ground and will be on the planes, and we've already notified them to begin duty," she added. "And the government of Colombia, it is our understanding, has completed all the notifications for the general flying public, and so therefore it is now really ready, as far as we can see it, and it's for the government of Colombia to say to the [Colombian] Air Force: 'Begin.'"

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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