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Aerial Radar Will Force More Drug Cartels Underwater

Squeeze one end of a balloon, and the other end swells.
Image: Shutterstock

It's an old adage in counternarcotics: Squeeze one end of a balloon, and the other end swells. Beef up a national aerial radar system, in other words, and the cocaine smugglers who use private jets to move their product will simply take their muling elsewhere.

That's what we can expect to happen in Guatemala, where authorities are building out a nationwide radar-detection platform to sniff out narco air traffic, as Guatemala's Prensa Libre reports.


The new Guatemalan platform will comprise four radars, according to Prensa Libre. The first, to the country's south, is expected to go live September 1; the others, to the east and north, will likely be up and running during the second half of 2015. Each radar will be capable of detecting flights as far as 200 miles away, and will give authorities a sense of the height, speed, and size of suspected narco aircraft. All for a cool US$34.2 million.

The plan is bold, if grounded in the fact that this sort of drug enforcement tactic has dealt the narcos a heavy blow in Guatemala and Central America writ large.

According to InsightCrime, Guatemalan interdiction efforts "have already helped shift drug flights into neighboring Honduras" and beyond. Per InsightCrime, advanced radar technologies:

[H]ave been hugely successful at combating aerial drug trafficking in Colombia. The country has seen a drastic reduction in illegal air traffic, from 600 illegal flights detected in 2002 to only three in the first ten months of 2012. Radar installations are also being used to combat rising drug trafficking through the Caribbean territories of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

And that's great. But the problem is that beefed-up aerial surveillance is forcing the traffickers to either reroute their flight paths or, increasingly, take to maritime smuggling routes. The threat of getting sniffed out in the air is enough to further the cartels' use of $1 million high-tech semi-submersible coke-smuggling submarines. As of 2012, the US Department of Homeland Security, which uses drones to sniff out narco subs in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, noted a 36 percent uptick in drug seizures there over the past four years.


The reality is that drug traffickers are highly adaptable. They have to be. Seafaring smuggle craft are just the most recent iteration of their relentless lo- and high-tech savvy. Colombian drug gangs are arguably the pioneers of this tactic, taking to jungle cover to forge DIY subs capable of hauling up to seven tons of cocaine per trip, InsightCrime adds.

A few years back,  Motherboard got a tour of one of these craft from the godfather of narco subs himself, Dr. Miguel Angel Montoya:

Ever since, the smuggles have gone even deeper: Now, their subs are fully submersible.

So, what goes up can also go down. Until it pops: Last week, Colombian National Police nabbed four members of the largest narco sub manufacturing ring.