Guatemala’s plans to install anti-drug flight radar could further increase drug traffickers’ heavy reliance on maritime routes.
Following the approval of a $36 million loan, Guatemala’s Defense and Civil Aviation ministries bought three Spanish-made radar units. The units will expand Guatemala’s 15-year old civil radar system, allowing authorities to identify clandestine aircraft and block drug trafficking air routes, Defense Minister Manuel Lopez Ambrosio told Prensa Libre.
The two ministries have begun testing the first radar unit and expects all three to be operational in July. Guatemalan authorities are likely hoping to replicate reported success in Honduras, where security forces claim to have eliminated drug flights, through the use of radar.
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Guatemalan policy makers are probably eager to highlight any possible advances they might make against transnational drug trafficking — especially given the general elections that will be held this September. However, rather than having a significant impact on the amount of drugs flowing through Guatemala, it’s likely the radar will only encourage traffickers to move more drug shipments by sea.
Latin American criminal groups rely heavily on maritime trafficking routes, and there are already a few examples of traffickers switching to sea routes in the face of increased air security. Guatemala is a key transit point for drugs being smuggled northward, and already has some of the region’s most sophisticated trafficking organizations operating there, including the Zetas and Sinaloa Cartel. These groups will undoubtedly find a way to overcome any challenges posed by increased air monitoring and keep the product flowing.
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Interdiction is another issue worth considering. A new radar system may better allow Guatemala’s authorities to identify suspicious aircraft — however, authorities must then successfully track that aircraft, and, should it refuse calls to land and cross a border into another country, Guatemala must have the necessary relationships in place with neighboring security forces, in order to continue following the plane. The technological ability to detect the plane in the first place is really only the first step in halting aerial drug trafficking.
Currently, Guatemala has a no “shoot-down” law in place, which would allow security forces to shoot down suspected drug flights. These have proven controversial across the region — last year, the US suspended sharing intelligence from its radars with Honduras, when the Central American country approved a shoot-down law.