As it moves to implement drug plane shoot-down legislation, Bolivia has created a new body focused on defending its airspace from drug traffickers -- a step that carries with it tremendous technical as well as potential legal challenges.
The Air Space Security and Defense Command will be headed by Air Brigade General Melvin Arteaga and will include representatives from Bolivia's Air Force, the Defense Ministry, the civil aviation agency and the airport administration, reported El Deber.
It will be responsible for defining operational procedures to implement Law 521 of Security and Defense of the Air Space of April 2014, which includes provisions for shooting down "hostile" planes if they fail to respond to warnings. The creation of the new command was stipulated in the law.
Arteaga told La Razon the Command needed three squadrons of fighter planes composed of about a dozen planes each, but said the Command still did not have all of these airplanes or any radar capacity.
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Bolivia is in the process of acquiring the necessary equipment and aircraft it needs, but the new Command's operations will face serious limitations for now. According to El Deber, various bidders have offered some $100 million worth of radar technology. However, as seen in neighboring Peru, the process of acquiring radar can be lengthy.
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Properly equipped, the Command could become a much-needed tool in a country that is a rising hub in the regional drug trade. As noted in an investigation by InSight Crime, Bolivia is at serious risk of becoming co-opted by transnational organized crime, thanks in part to its location next to Latin America's primary markets for cocaine, Brazil and Argentina. Bolivia has already become a key transit point for Peruvian cocaine bound for these markets -- much of which is moved through Bolivia by air.
Bolivia is among various Latin American nations stepping up efforts to control its airspace. This month, Paraguay's senate approved a bill to authorize shooting down aircraft in its airspace. In January, the Honduran government passed a law authorizing shooting down suspect airplanes as well.
The three countries share several things in common: none of them have strong air defense capabilities, a strong tradition of oversight, or protocol for complex operations such as shooting down aircraft. The combination could make for some messy legal battles if suspect airplanes ever turn out to be civilians in disguise -- as occurred in Peru in 2001.