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Airborne agents

Customs Service's high-tech planes have been an effective weapon in drug war


By Tracey Eaton / The Dallas Morning News

HIGH ABOVE THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER - They're the highway patrol of the skies and from above the clouds, the lumbering cruisers spot hundreds of drug planes darting across northern Mexico every year.

Mona Reeder / DMN
After deplaning following a long surveillance flight, Jim Coulter pauses to greet two-year-old Matthew Ryan who was visiting his father, a machinist, in the U.S. Customs Surveillance Center in Corpus Christi at the Naval Air Station.

The Lockheed Martin P-3s, among the premiere weapons in the drug war, hunt for smugglers using high-tech radar developed to detect enemy submarines.

These U.S. Customs Service planes, working with monitors on the ground, have recorded an astonishing 5,000-plus drug flights in northern Mexico since 1994, U.S. officials say.

About 3,000 of the suspected drug couriers were found along Arizona's southern frontier, more than 1,200 on the Texas border and the rest along the southern edge of California.

Catching them is the hard part.

But law enforcement officials on both sides of the border say they're making progress and working together despite rough spots in U.S.-Mexico relations.

"The air program has always worked closely with Mexico," said Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly, calling it one of the agency's "least known but most successful cooperative ventures."

Mona Reeder / DMN
U.S. Customs pilot, Mike Malowney, maneuvers his plane behind another Customs plane, a Cessna Citation 2, on a recent surveillance mission over the U.S./Mexico border.

Among the recent successes: On Feb. 10, U.S. radar operators spotted a suspicious plane that left Colombia bound for Mexico with a Mexican flag painted on its side to fool authorities. Customs found out it wasn't a government aircraft, and two P-3s gave chase.

The Cessna 210 landed next to a highway in the Mexican state of Morelos. Mexican narcotics agents arrested two Colombians and seized 968 pounds of cocaine as customs planes circled overhead, cameras rolling.

On Jan. 24, customs saw another suspicious plane entering Mexico from the south. They alerted Mexican authorities, who surrounded it after it landed, arresting three people and grabbing more than a half ton of cocaine.

In a similar bust three days later, agents led Mexican officials to another aircraft, where they confiscated 600 pounds of marijuana.

Customs flies P-3s out of Corpus Christi. On a recent morning, one of the planes took off for the U.S.-Mexico border in search of smugglers.

Onboard a P-3

At 7:17 a.m., the aircraft - weighing just over 59 tons with fuel and a nine-man crew - left the runway and started climbing to 16,500 feet above sea level.

"Hammer, let's go secure," the pilot said.

Hammer is the code word for the agency's Domestic Air Interdiction center in Riverside, Calif., touted as the world's most sophisticated radar tracking station. "Going secure" means the pilot wants to talk over an encrypted channel.

Radar operator Dan Williams sat in front of a green-colored screen and stared at a jumble of lines, dots and squiggles - marking tracks that planes, boats and even cars and trucks leave behind. "Radar paint" in customs-speak.

Learning to decipher it can take years.

"You don't just take a radar operator and throw him in the seat. It takes experience," customs supervisor Randy Crone said. "You can get false readings off things like corrugated tin roofs."

Still, the Lockheed Martin P-3 is a sophisticated plane. The Customs Service has nine of the $50 million planes and plans to buy seven more by 2002.

Mr. Crone was aboard a 33-year-old P-3 rescued from Navy surplus, refurbished and retrofitted with surveillance gear.

The plane is known as a "Dome," named for the 24-foot-wide disk that sits on its top. Domes are like a wide-angle lens, and the radar can scan almost 200,000 square miles at once.

It's sister aircraft is nicknamed "The Slick" because of its smooth top and lack of giant external radar. It uses the same intercept radar as F-15 fighter jets.

While Domes act like a wide-angle lens, Slicks operate like a telephoto lens, zeroing in on targets.

They can stay aloft for 12 hours and cruise 3,000 miles or more. They can spot targets the size of a file cabinet 180 miles away. And they can track multiple aircraft, calculating the speed, direction and altitude of each one simultaneously.

Modest seizures

For all that gee-whiz technology, the Corpus Christi Slicks and Domes are responsible for what some critics see as modest seizures: some 125 tons of cocaine and 80 tons of marijuana since 1987 - considerably less than what traffickers smuggle into the U.S. in a single year.

And the four-engine turbo-prop P-3s aren't cheap, costing from $3,000 to $3,500 per hour to operate.

The benefit, customs officials say, is that their presence keeps many drug pilots from even entering U.S. airspace. They know the P-3s are watching.

"If you think you're going to stop all the drugs, you're going to drive yourself crazy. But for the money, we're an effective, efficient deterrent," Customs pilot Allen Durham said from the cockpit.

Customs started launching anti-drug planes in 1972. The border was wide open then, and by 1978 at least 6,500 drug planes crossed the international line every year, one study showed.

In California's Riverside and San Bernardino counties, agents would find two drug aircraft abandoned every month. "We figured probably 20 times that many were coming in," said Joe Maxwell, who heads customs' Riverside base .

"We eventually shut all that down."

Traffickers were quick to adjust, and by the 1980s many moved their operations to the Caribbean.

Customs struck back, shifting practically its entire 250-person air interdiction staff to South Florida, soon forcing many smugglers back to the Mexican border.

These days, traffickers are busy in both the Caribbean and Mexico.

'Forced to watch'

Haiti is such open territory for smugglers that Customs pilots can only wave a reluctant "hello" as Colombians land and drop off drug loads.

"We're forced to watch," one customs official said. "We can alert the Haitians, but we know they're not going to respond."

Customs isn't so unwelcome in Colombia, where the U.S. plans to spend $1.6 billion in drug aid over the next three years.

Northern Mexico is another way station for drugs. Colombians often fly loads into Guatemala and Belize, U.S. agents say. Smugglers then shuttle the drugs into Mexico by land, load them onto planes and fly north, evading highway checkpoints on the ground.

Once they reach the border, they rarely cross, Customs agents say. Instead, they land just short of the border and unload their goods.

"Smugglers then move the drugs by any means they can: with people, cars, horses, through tunnels," Mr. Maxwell said.

But traffickers are difficult to tail, he said. They have money for all the latest communications gadgets, arming themselves with encrypted cell phones and long-range radios. And they often use pagers or e-mail to send logistics to their pilots - including times, dates and the exact satellite coordinates where the drugs will be dropped.

"There's no talking over the air anymore," Mr. Maxwell said. "Those kinds of things are hurting us."

Customs sometimes wins and their targets don't know they've been had.

"We'll follow a guy for hours on end and he'll never know we're back there," radar operator Jim Coulter said. "When they land, they think they're home-free and all of a sudden, the world descends on them."

What hurts the agency, some analysts say, is that drug gangs are often quicker to adapt than Customs.

Away from the air cat-and-mouse game, traffickers routinely hide tons of narcotics in legitimate loads of commercial freight sent from Colombia and Mexico to the United States, U.S. drug agents say. Customs' own intelligence reports confirm it.


But the agency lacks the money and tools to stop it, Mr. Kelly said.

About $1 trillion in goods was imported into the United States last year, he said, an amount that could jump to almost $1.8 trillion by 2005, severely straining Customs.

"We need better information to do our job, better technology to help us look at what's coming across the border," Mr. Kelly said. "Right now we inspect about 2 percent of what's coming into the United States. That number will go down to about 1 percent in the year 2005."

Inspecting more will cost more money, he said.

Still, he is encouraged by what the air program has achieved in its efforts to fight traffickers from Mexico.

"No question, they have great corruption problems down there," he said. "But they're talking the right talk; they're doing some of the right things. We'll have to wait and see."

In all, Customs has 114 aircraft in its anti-drug fleet, including two speedy Cessna Citation II jets based in Mexico, one in Hermosillo in northern Mexico and the other in Mˇrida on the Yucat‡n peninsula.

The Hermosillo Citation, which can sprint toward suspect aircraft at 400 mph, has helped Mexican authorities nab at least 17 drug planes, 10 vehicles and nearly 10,000 pounds of marijuana since January.

As for the P-3 that recently flew from Corpus Christi, its crew remained undeterred even after nearly reaching Tucson without finding any targets.

Traffickers "bring something into our country that's killing our country," said Mr. Coulter, the radar operator. "I can't be real sympathetic."

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