Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Shooting down drug planes

In an interview with Mexico's newspaper, El Universal, Honduran General Rene Osorio Canales says he wants to shoot down drug planes.  This, he says, is a better solution than legalizing some drugs, a measure considered by Central American Presidents at a recent meeting.  Osorio rejected Guatemalan President Perez's attempts to get legalization discussed because "the youth would have more freedom (presumably to use drugs) and we would be more polluted (presumably with drugs)."  Given that less than a month ago, on March 30, Osorio seemed to be against shooting down suspected drug planes as being illegal under international law, this change of heart is interesting.

Shooting down drug planes is not a new suggestion.  Here he's echoing Juan Orlando Hernandez and others in the Honduran Congress who, because of their political aspirations, are anxious to be seen as hard-line anti-drug without actually having such a legislative record.  Juan Orlando Hernandez first embraced this strategy after a meeting with US officials in the United States.

Nor is shooting down drug planes a new suggestion in the world.  Its been done, at least twice in the Dominican Republic in recent years, but only after trying to force the planes to land.  Likewise, the United States has encouraged the military of Colombia and Peru to adopt such anti-drug plans.

In his interview with El Universal, Osorio maintained the polite fiction that following and forcing down the drug planes was already the policy of the Honduran Air Force.  In reality, the Honduran Air Force does not intercept planes and force them to land at a controlled airport, or at least, they've never publicly reported a success at doing that.  This was the policy from the 1980s to at least 2004 when a drug plane they fired warning shots at, then crashed in the department of Lempira.  They report following drug planes, but they have not reported successfully forcing one to land at a controlled airport in the last 8 years.

Osorio, at least, realizes that legal changes must happen before Honduras could actually legally shoot down a plane suspected of carrying a cargo of drugs.  Brian E. Foont, in a review of the law and international incidents published in 2007 in The Journal of Air Law and Commerce goes over the state of law regarding the downing of civilian aircraft.  There's this international treaty called the Convention on International Civil Aviation or Chicago Convention.  The Convention neither bans, nor permits the shooting down of civilian aircraft but sets up that each nation's airspace is sovereign, and that it is international case law and reports of groups like the ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization) that establish the current norms about how civilian aircraft may be treated by national military forces.

In 1986, the ICAO, proposed adding  amendment 3bis to the Chicaco Convention which reads in part:
The contracting states recognize that every state must refrain from resorting to the use of military weapons against civil aircraft in flight, and that in case of interception, the lives of persons on board and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered.
The amendment goes on to include that every nation can request aircraft violating its airspace to land at a designated place, and establishes the requirement that aircraft obey such orders.  This amendment was not ratified by the membership in the ICAO until 1998. Interestingly, the US and Peru, both of whom advocate shooting down suspected drug planes (outside of US air space) are not signatories of Article 3bis.  Foont  concludes that a rule prohibiting the use of force against civilian aircraft is at the cusp of being established international law, but that its not quite there yet. 

Foont, in the above referenced article, also reviews the law with respect to the shooting down of suspected drug planes.  He notes that the US, while not having this policy for US airspace, encourages it in partner countries such as Peru and Colombia, both of which have "accidentally" shot down civilian missionary flights as part of such a drug interdiction program.  The US has even gone so far as to indemnify and hold harmless any US functionary aiding countries that the President of the US has found to have an adequate civilian safety assurance program as part of such a drug interdiction program, and this includes the programs in these two countries.

Osorio makes the argument that Honduras needs the US to provide upgrades to its air force in order to implement such a policy, specifically Bell 212 helicopters and Super Tucano aircraft, which thus far, the US has declined to provide through its military aid to Honduras.  Its current fleet of aging Tucano aircraft Osorio claims are too slow to intercept the modern civilian aircraft being use, and its F5 fleet is too broken down to be flown that often.

Osorio gives us no clues as to why he's had an apparent change of heart with regard to the interception and downing of suspected civilian drug aircraft.  However, such a program in other Latin American countries has inevitably led to innocent civilian deaths. 

Right now Honduras has no viable way to detect and follow suspected civilian drug aircraft, so this is a hypothetical future that is only possible with a large scale infusion of money and equipment to the Honduran Air Force.  They lack local radar, and apparently do not have access to the US Southern Command's radar network such as the arrangement that the military of the Domincan Republic have, where their soldiers watch over radar consoles at US Southcom and dispatch Dominican Air Force planes to intercept detected drug flights. 

While interdiction of planes worked in places like the Dominican Republic, greatly reducing the amount of cocaine literally dropping from the air, that effect was short lived.  The drug traffickers responded by switching to water transport and continue to use the Dominican Republic as a transit point. 

Why should we expect a different outcome in Honduras?

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