Brevard Base Guides Anti-Drug Fight

Brevard Base Guides Anti-Drug Fight
Posted by FoM on June 03, 2001 at 10:49:46 PT
By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez, Sentinel Staff Writer
Source: Orlando Sentinel
A big part of the war on drugs in Colombia is being waged from a conference room wedged between two hangars at this military complex near Cocoa Beach. Maps line the walls, showing the latest target areas where Colombian peasants and their drug-trade landlords are trying to make a living.Red dots, identifying coca fields in Colombiaís southern plains, swarm the bottoms and sides of the poster-sized maps. The yellow areas show recent spray sorties by U.S. planes in the embattled South American nation.
Inside one of the many cramped, subdivided offices, mapping analysts stay busy plotting the latest spray patterns and grids of Colombiaís coca and opium fields -- the raw crops for cocaine and heroin -- with colorful computer graphics. Outside, mechanics inspect spare parts. They refurbish surplus Vietnam War-era helicopters and convert military planes into crop-dusters.This sprawling base, better known for its support role in Air Force rocket launches from nearby Cape Canaveral, is the nerve center for U.S. drug-eradication programs in Colombia and elsewhere. As the maintenance, planning and training center for the U.S. State Departmentís Air Wing, it plays a crucial role in the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package approved last year for Plan Colombia.One of the major goals of the plan: cut coca production in half within three years and, in doing so, take away a major source of income for armed groups who are fueling acivil war that kills nearly 4,000 Colombians a year.But itís still too early to tell whether Plan Colombia will succeed.So far this year, U.S. and Colombian pilots have sprayed 94,000 acres, or about one-fourth of the crop.Despite the record spraying, though, varying estimates show that coca is still booming and that cultivation is sprouting in other areas.The spraying campaign also is igniting widespread criticism -- especially from growers and Colombian politicians who claim the effort is making farmers sick, damaging the environment and killing other crops such as bananas and corn. In response, Colombian authorities are drawing up new environmental-impact studies.Critics also say the early stages of Plan Colombia have not lived up to Colombian President Andres Pastranaís promise to complement the fumigation with simultaneousinvestments in alternative crops.Regardless, a State Department official said Friday that the spraying will succeed because the United States is throwing more resources into the campaign, including a doubling of the crop-dusting fleet from 11 to 22.ĎNo SecretsíItís dangerous and controversial work directed by career State Department officers but often executed by for-profit U.S. companies. At Patrick alone, the State Department employs 158 people, the bulk of whom are contractors.The practice, known as "outsourcing," is under growing scrutiny, especially after the downing of a U.S. missionary plane over Peru in April. That was a CIA-contracted operation erroneously linked to DynCorp, the State Departmentís defoliation contractor in Colombia. DynCorp, a Fortune 500 company based in Reston, Va., takes in more than $1 billion a year in revenue from government contracts in the United States and abroad. It subcontracts the airplane-pilot portion of the drug-fumigation program to Eagle Aviation Services & Technology (EAST Inc.), also of Virginia.Critics, including defense specialists, human-rights groups and congressmen, have frequently said the trend of privatizing U.S. government operations is convenient for foreign policy. It lacks accountability, the contracts often are hidden from the public and it gives government agencies a perfect cover in case something goes wrong abroad.Conversely, government agencies and the military argue that private contractors are more efficient and cheaper.John McLaughlin, the State Departmentís air-division chief at Patrick, is an avowed advocate of aerial spraying and outsourcing. McLaughlin, a 22-year agency veteran, believes only a steady commitment to spraying in countries such as Colombia will have a lasting effect.In fact, $119 million for aerial fumigation was allocated in last yearís U.S. contribution to Plan Colombia."Itís not a black program," said McLaughlin, 59, using the term for covert government operations. "I canít think of anything thatís secret."The State Department, however, often shuns publicity, and its contractors are barred from publicizing their work. McLaughlin, a former Air Force jet pilot, calls them "patriots" who are often drawn to the work because of their military background.DynCorp employees at Patrick said they resent being portrayed as Uncle Samís mercenaries."Quite frankly, itís been insulting to us," chief helicopter mechanic Earl Meade, 35, said.The Army veteran and former Apache helicopter crew chief said money -- pilotsí salaries run from $95,000 to $180,000 -- is not the only incentive."Itís about the mission," Meade said.For him, itís a personal crusade to stamp out drugs from American streets."Iím raising three children. Thereís not a whole lot of fathers who can say theyíre actually doing something about it."High-Risk Acrobats:Up to six flight trainers take advantage of Brevard Countyís vast rural landscape to teach American and foreign recruits how to fly at more than 200 mph only dozens of feet above treetops while releasing a powerful mist of weedkiller.Aviators learn how to apply the herbicide glyphosate using satellite-guided panels while their helicopter counterparts and crews learn how to maneuver in hostile territory and escort the planes. Paramedics are taught to rappel from choppers during search-and-rescue missions. And equally important, everybody undergoes survival training in case of capture by armed groups.In this case, the enemy is Colombiaís powerful leftist guerrillas.From the wide canopy of a refurbished OV-10 Bronco military airplane at 2,000 feet, Central Floridaís palms, pines and other foliage below look eerily similar to Colombiaís lowlands. Thatís where the similarities end, though.In Colombiaís plains and lush countryside, pilots and crews face armed peasants and guerrillas. The ground fire comes not only from small arms such as AK-47 assault rifles, but also from guerrillas toting rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. The low-flying acrobats sometimes encounter gunfire at point-blank range as they zoom past rooftops and shacks.The hazards on the ground or the skies are ever present.The State Department measures the threat in bullet hits. Through mid-May, State Department aircraft had taken at least 81 bullets, a figure expected to surpass last yearís record 124 hits.Some of those holes and impressions are clearly visible on the aircraft when they return to Patrick for maintenance.Though no contractors have been killed or wounded from ground fire, three American pilots have died in accidents in Colombia since 1997. Another U.S. contract pilot was injured during an ejection from an OV-10 spray plane last year.To lessen the dangers, State Department planes have armor-plated fuselages and bulletproof cockpits. Night-vision goggles allow operations to continue under the cover of darkness. And forward-looking infrared systems guide escorting Colombian helicopter gunners who often spray machine-gun fire to deter ground attacks. Civilian contractors are not supposed to engage armed groups directly. But it happened in February when a search-and-rescue helicopter team was called in to save the crew of a downed Colombian police helicopter. The U.S.-Colombian team landed in the middle of a gunfight in the region of Caqueta, not far from a 16,000-square-mile zone ceded by the government to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, but escaped unscathed.The Missions:Five days before last Christmas, a fleet of six OV-10 Broncos and six T-65 Turbo Thrushes took to the skies in the southern province of Putumayo and began a 45-day fumigation campaign that extended into neighboring Caqueta province.Before them, two U.S.Green Beret-trained Colombian army counter-narcotics battalions had begun an air assault with dozens of Bell UH-1N Hueys recently renovated at Patrick. They secured large swaths of coca-growing fields ahead of the fumigation pilots.Their mission: to unload thousands of gallons of glyphosate, the chemical weedkiller also present in the household product Roundup.After the campaign, U.S. and Colombian government officials reacted with glee at one of the most prolonged spray operations in recent history.When the aviators and crews, both U.S. and foreign, had finished, about 61,700 acres of coca fields had been sprayed with littleresistance. Observers said that wasnít surprising, considering Colombiaís powerful right-wing paramilitaries controlled the targeted areas and did not object to the spray.The story on the ground was different.Peasants, backed by indigenous groups and local politicians, fiercely complained of having their livelihoods wrecked by the fumigation. Reports of skin rashes and respiratory ailments were common.But the growers found a way to fight the wilting effects of herbicides on their small 5-acre plots: They clipped the bushes soon after they were sprayed so the roots and stems survived. Officials estimate they are saving up to a quarter of their coca.High-Tech Future:Sometimes, estimating drug crops in Colombia can be tricky. The United Nations, the CIA, the State Department and even Colombian authorities have all offered differing predictions. As recently as last month, the U.N. drug-control office in Bogota presented a satellite study that showed far more cultivated coca than previously thought.Despite the criticism, U.S. government officials remain hopeful that more extensive mapping at Patrick, the conversion of the newer A-10 Warthog military aircraft to crop-dusters and more spraying finally will start having an impact.For example, before the spray missions in the Putumayo, a Cessna plane mounted with a $1.7 million digital-imaging system took pictures of the coca fields and then used a satellite to find coordinates for targeted areas. That information later was copied onto computer programs that alerted airborne pilots when to open the spray nozzles.The eventual goal of the fumigation program is to transfer the equipment, technology and know-how to Colombian agencies in a couple of years.However, government officials and experts are predicting the U.S. presence -- and Patrick Air Force Baseís contribution -- may well last longer."The difference between the previous effort and now is . . . we have a larger program and resources," said Rand Beers, head of international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs for the State Department.Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be reached at: pruz orlandosentinel.comPatrick Air Force BaseSource: Orlando Sentinel (FL) Author: Pedro Ruz Gutierrez, Sentinel Staff WriterPublished: June 3, 2001Copyright: 2001 Orlando Sentinel Contact: insight Website: Related Articles & Web Site:Colombia Drug War News's Drug War Strategy: Escalate It Outsources Secret War Crop Survives 1st Wave War on Drugs in Colombia Ravages Farmers
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Comment #3 posted by die on June 04, 2001 at 09:49:52 PT:
good job
pretty good information you got here............
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Comment #2 posted by Sudaca on June 04, 2001 at 08:41:12 PT
So, these 'patriots' feel justified in poisoning the environment of another country, destroying the livelihood of peasants, help the black market become more lucrative , backing terrorists (as the paralimitaries have been officially declared by the US) , invading Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and participating in a covert military operation funded with non accountable money from taxes..And they feel insulted by being called mercenaries; no.. theyare the christian soldiers marching onwards to do Gods work.unberlievable how people can rationalize anything they do.
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Comment #1 posted by lookinside on June 03, 2001 at 15:44:07 PT:
sooner or later...
something REALLY bad will happen down there...then theguvmint will escalate...with a little luck we can have a newviet nam...hopefully the columbian government will toss the yanquis outbefore they can decimate the entire region...
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