By Yolima Dussán/Diálogo April 04, 2017 Colombia and Panama signed in 2012 a bi-national accord to develop a joint interdiction and interception strategy to prevent the use of their airspace for illicit trafficking of arms and drugs. Those were difficult times. Since the beginning of the 2000s, both nations had faced an onslaught from criminal groups transporting illicit drugs by the ton. In 2003 alone, the Colombian Air Force (FAC, per its Spanish acronym) detected 635 illegal flights in the two countries’ airspace. Today, five years after formalizing their accord, that number has dropped by 99 percent, a stunning figure that reflects the successful outcome of the bi-national strategy. That strategy has enabled them to ratify mechanisms for transferring information for combating criminal organizations, leverage electronic intelligence, and reinforce the legislation on which the accord is based. Anti-crime strategies Driving these results are policies the Colombian and Panamanian governments adopted that allow for tough, coordinated action in these control operations. “We’ve managed to neutralize the threats in our airspace to the point that criminals have had to change their modus operandi,” Colonel Iván Darío Bocanegra, director of FAC Air Defense, told Diálogo. “Now we are cracking down on other forms of drug trafficking but we have virtually undisputed control over the airspace. So far this year, we have identified just a single illegal flight at the border with Panama.” The strategy is effective and involves a monumental joint effort between several Colombian and Panamanian agencies, as well as the steadfast support of the U.S. government. To clamp down on drug trafficking on its borders, Colombia has signed bilateral accords with several countries. “Memoranda of understanding, known as Current Operation Procedures (POV, per their Spanish acronym), were drafted to make these cooperation strategies possible. They allow us to set up mechanisms and protocols for quickly exchanging information in real time so we can keep the illegal transit of aircraft in check,” Col. Bocanegra remarked. Colombia has established POVs with nine countries, including Brazil and the United States. Communication, the cornerstone of bi-national strategies “This strategy of bi-national cooperation for control of our airspace is built on communication. The success of an operation depends on the act of transferring targets once they are detected and effectively transferring that information to the authorities in countries that partner with us on air interdiction and interception,” Col. Bocanegra said. “That is achieved through effective communication procedures that use modern radiotelephone equipment with set and verified frequencies, and with clear leadership guidelines.” Under its POV with Panama, the FAC can provide authorities in the neighboring country with information on flights identified as illegal by their systems, and it can scramble a chase up to the location where Panama’s Air-Naval Service will take over the operation and prevent the flight from continuing. “This strategy with Panama allows us to work more effectively because our aircraft have permission to enter their airspace in hot pursuit of a target, as part of a joint exercise with the Panamanian security services,” Col. Bocanegra added. Traffickers moved from air to land and sea With such effective results neutralizing illegal flights, the air control strategy between Colombia and Panama has now reached a turning point. “As we tweak our operational procedures, criminal groups also change their modus operandi,” Lieutenant Colonel Andrés Niño, deputy director of FAC Air Defense Operations, told Diálogo, regarding this new stage of development in the POV with Panama. “We are now facing an increasing number of speedboats heading out from Colombia’s coasts and stopping off in Panamanian villages in order to distribute the drugs they are transporting. Since they can no longer operate by air, they are now trying to move by land and sea, using countless small and varied routes.” Cracking down on the increasing number of illegal watercraft is not the FAC’s bailiwick. That task falls to the Colombian Navy. Their experience, well-suited equipment, and partnership with the United States make the FAC’s involvement in the Navy’s operations vitally useful. For that reason, both service branches have signed an agreement known as Support to Suppress Illicit Trafficking by Sea, which works in tandem with the joint strategy with Panama for detecting boats departing from Colombian shores. It is this state of affairs that has led to the need to develop new surveillance and enforcement protocols. PANCOL II, for updating procedures With the goal of combating the new methods used by organized crime on the border with Panama, the bi-national PANCOL-II exercise will be held from April 17th to 21st. The aim of the exercise is to refine control procedures designed to ensure the exchange of information needed for successfully interdicting targets by air or at sea. The drill will take place in Rionegro, Antioquia department, located in northwestern Colombia. “This type of exercise is very important because it is a chance to practice actions taken in real-world operations in order to test the effectiveness of our communication channels with the Panamanian authorities,” Col. Bocanegra remarked. Nearly 100 people will participate in PANCOL-II at the bases where the exercises are conducted and also at forward operating bases on land. “It’s an air defense interaction involving Colombia and Panama,” Col. Niño reported. “All the details of working frequencies, aircraft flight altitudes, the procedure for handing over targets, and so on will be hammered out.” The future: Uniting the nations in the region “The political will of the Panamanian authorities to work jointly with us is rock solid. They are familiar with what it takes to work in a coordinated way. They have very good resources, with a modern fleet of helicopters and well-defined procedures,” Col. Bocanegra affirmed. These strategies are not the effort of a single nation or a single organization. It’s a joint, combined, interagency effort because drug trafficking is a transnational threat. Our vision for the future is to get our countries to unite — from Mexico all the way to Chile — to create a system or organization that will fight this scourge on a regional level and set out a common framework, with shared legislative ties among nations so the threats of transnational crime can be more effectively quashed,” he concluded.