Venezuela to Adopt ‘Shoot-Down’ Policy for Suspected Drug Flights

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Venezuela’s Congress has approved legislation which will allow the use of force against aircraft suspected of carrying shipments of illegal drugs.

On May 23 the National Assembly, Venezuela’s unicameral legislative body, unanimously approved a law which allows the Bolivarian National Air Force to “intercept, dissuade and disable” aircraft violating Venezuela air space regulations.

The passage of the law is a victory for President Hugo Chavez, who has been one of its major proponents. In October the Venezuelan leader addressed the issue in a televised speech, saying that the new law was necessary in order to crack down on drug trafficking in the country. According to Chavez, when air force planes intercept planes suspected of carrying drugs, the pilots often ignore orders to land, leaving the military unable to stop them.

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Venezuela has become a major transit nation for Colombian drugs, and United Nations anti-drug officials claim it is the principal source of cocaine bound for the European market. It is also believed to be a significant launching point for air traffic bringing the drug to Central America and the Caribbean. Honduras, which an estimated 88 percent of US-bound drugs pass through, has become the favorite destination of Venezuelan pilots carrying drug shipments.

A recent drug operation in Honduras, for instance, which caused controversy over claims that US agents were involved in the death of four innocent people, was made possible by Colombian and US radar equipment picking up a suspicious flight leaving Venezuela. Because of Chavez’s historically chilly relationship with both countries, Venezuela does not share intelligence on drug flights with them, limiting its capacity to track drug flights. The Chavez government has·purchased long-range JYL-1 radars from the Chinese government, but Venezuela is not expected to acheive full radar coverage of its airspace until 2013.

The new law is also troubling from a human rights perspective, as a policy advocating the use of force against civilian aircraft carries risk. Although a similar strategy is credited with vastly reducing drug flights from Peru, the program was suspended in 2001 after the military mistakenly shot down a plane carrying US missionaries, killing a 7-month-old girl and her mother.

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