CIRCLES IN THE SKY: How the DEA target coca plantations & processing plants on Colombia's borders.
As the sun was starting to set over Bogota on the afternoon of September 28th "Flash14" got clearance from the tower at El Dorado International Airport to take off. The aircraft banked to the north and began climbing to cruising altitude for the trip to the Norte de Santander region of Colombia's shared border with Venezuela. A little over an hour later they began descending to 12,000 feet and settled in for a night of surveillance. For more than sixteen hours the aircraft circled over various tributaries to the Catatumba river in an area just west of La Gabarra, a small town built on the banks of the Catatumbo.
The Catatumbo River Basin encompasses almost two thousand square miles of jungle in northeastern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela. The areas outside of the dozen or so small and medium sized town are free from significant government oversight and the isolated nature of these locations far from government-ran cities has made it an ideal place for armed groups to base their operations.
Beginning in early 2018 several armed groups including the ELN, Popular Liberation Army and a smaller faction of the FARC began increasing operations in the region. The various groups are fighting for control of local land and coca fields as the traditional cultivation areas from Colombias southern border with Ecuador and Peru continue to shift to the eastern one with Venezuela. While this shift is surely a result of several factors the most prominent one is the regions proximity to the border with Venezuela and the Narco friendly government clinging to power in Miraflores.
The Chavez and now Maduro governments both embraced the ELN & FARC as a matter of policy and also personal enrichment. With the assistance of the military and Diosdado Cabello in particular they formed the Cartel of the Suns to create a safe pipeline for the cocaine the ELN and FARC produced, allowing aircraft and watercraft to use Venezuelan territory as starting point for smugglers heading to the U.S. through Central America and the Caribbean but also to Europe and the Middle East. The air route to Central America became known in the private pilot community as flying the "Air Bridge" from Maracaibo and is both lucrative and dangerous. Many of the planes crash due to the heavy loads and poor condition of the planes used, which are only intended to be used once and are often torched after the narcotics are unloaded into waiting pickup trucks at the destination.
The presence of these armed groups in the Catatumbo River Valley has had a devastating impact on the local population. A report by Human Rights Watch last year documented at least 40,000 people being displaced, child soldier recruitment, kidnappings, sexual violence, and forced child labour on coca farms to support the illicit drug trade.
You might think that Flash14 doing circles over Colombia is owned by the Colombian Air Force, or possibly even the U.S. Air Force but this specially equipped Beechcraft 200T Super King Air isn't owned by any government agency. Instead it is one of at least a dozen fixed wing aircraft operated by MAG-Aerospace and outfitted to provide intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to the DEA and other federal government agencies around the world.
With all of the violence and ever increasing coca production in the area it is encouraging to see that the DEA is targeting the coca fields and identifying the processing plants so that the military can plan operations to disrupt the flow of narcotics. However as long as the demand for drugs in wealthy nations continues to outpace treatment, there will be armed groups in poor rural areas of Colombia killing each other and innocent Colombians for control of that trade.
Written By: Simon Bolivar