- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

KINGSTON, Jamaica - Drug gangs seeking safer ways to smuggle Colombian cocaine through Jamaica are increasingly taking to the skies, using light planes to deliver tons of drugs at remote airstrips or to make air drops to waiting boats.

In response, antidrug police agencies are shifting tactics to meet the trend in airborne smuggling that relies on small single- and twin-engine planes.

The upsurge in drug flights has not only riveted the attention of narcotics law enforcement personnel, but also raised concern among the island’s legitimate light-plane operators. They worry that as police crack down on the drug flights, they will be tarnished and suffer losses as the drug war focuses on light planes.

The upsurge in drug flights is “something that we are very, very concerned about”, said Jamaica’s top narcotics officer, Carl Williams.

Police first noticed an increasing number of drug flights four years ago. The trend has grown since then, Mr. Williams said, as smugglers sought to outwit police who were seizing more and more of their “go-fast” boats.

The sleek vessels are regarded as workhorses, hauling about 80 percent of the 100 metric tons of Colombian cocaine that is estimated to pass through Jamaica annually en route to the United States and Europe.

Leaving at night from Colombia’s northern coast, the go-fast boats became increasingly popular in the early 1990s. Before then, smugglers were fond of using light aircraft. But as authorities became more adept at tracking and intercepting light planes, they cut back drastically on drug flights and resorted to the speedy boats.

“Now, we see the aircraft coming back, giving us a whole lot of trouble,” said Mr. Williams, who spoke publicly about the trend for the first time on Jan. 13 during a conference in Kingston on maritime security.

Light planes now haul about 15 percent of the cocaine that passes through Jamaica annually, Mr. Williams estimated. Thanks to Jamaica’s largely unpopulated coastline and strategic geographic location, it’s one of the region’s main trans-shipment points for Colombian cocaine.

Jamaica is also the Caribbean’s biggest “ganja” (marijuana) producer, and light planes play a role in that trade as well, said Mr. Williams.

Besides hauling drugs, light planes are now being used as spotters. Flying above go-fast boats, they advise the boat crews about the location of drug-interception vessels.

Piloted by Jamaicans and foreigners, the drug planes also carry a man known as a “kicker.” He boots packages of cocaine or ganja out the door to boats waiting below, and loads or unloads the illicit cargo at airstrips, a task that takes less than five minutes.

So nimble are the light planes that any decent pilot can land or take off from makeshift dirt or grass airstrips.

“They can put them down just about anywhere,” said Mr. Williams.

The drug trade’s most sinister aspects — the violence and economic havoc caused by money laundering — have hurt Jamaica through negative international publicity. Mr. Williams blames the drug and illicit arms trades for generating much of the island’s intolerable homicide rate.

The country had 956 slayings last year, one of the world’s highest rates per capita. That was despite a 15 percent drop in the annual toll for two years straight.

Mr. Williams said police had detained about 10 aircraft over the past few years for suspected drug running. He acknowledged, however, that police were able to seize only two or three planes.

One was a twin-engine Piper Navajo seized on July 13, 2003, after a shootout at Tinson Pen airfield. The bullet-pocked plane managed to take off on a suspected drug run after the gunplay but returned five hours later.

Police later arrested the Bahamian pilot and eight other men — including two policemen. But a judge dismissed drug-running charges against the men last month, citing procedural errors by the prosecution.

Mr. Williams blasted the decision as a “victory for the drug-trafficking community.”

Although police have yet to make a case against a drug kingpin, Mr. Williams said police would eventually bring in a “Mr. Big.”

“We know exactly who they are,” he said, adding that local kingpins hide behind legitimate businesses.

Making a case would take patience, he said, and would be facilitated by a number of new laws coming into effect. The new laws tighten banking regulations and give police greater powers in regard to wire-tapping.

Mr. Williams declined to say law enforcement personnel discover information concerning incoming drug flights. But some of the drug flights are, undoubtedly, spotted by big high-flying jet and turboprop planes — virtual airborne radar stations — operated by the U.S. military and Customs Service. The planes are based in Aruba and Curacao and support the region’s antidrug efforts — part of a growing partnership among Jamaica, the United States, and United Kingdom in the drug war.

To Jamaica’s small, close-knit general aviation community, the upsurge in drug flights comes as no surprise. Local pilots are wary about the increasing number of light planes on the island, which “cannot be accounted for as legitimate,” said Christopher Read, managing director of Airpak Express, an islandwide courier service.

“Until a couple of years ago, we [pilots] could tell you about every airplane in Jamaica — who owns it and how it was being used, whether for tourism, deliveries, or sightseeing,” said Mr. Read, whose firm flies single-engine, four-seat Cessna 172s.

“But over the last couple of years, there has been a sudden change,” he explained. “Now, there are a number of airplanes at airports, and nobody knows who the owners are — or what the airplanes do for their existence.”

For Mr. Read, the increase in unknown planes evokes a feeling of deja vu.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, he said, legitimate aircraft operators became unintended casualties of the drug war as authorities restricted general aviation to stop drug flights that were also common at that time.

The number of airfields shrank from 60 to the six that exist today, he said. He worried that general aviation might suffer again.

“Legitimate users have suffered very adversely over the years — the consequence of a few illegal users abusing the system — and we have a continued vested interest to ensure that our operations are maintained in a legitimate mode,” he said.

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