The government in Bolivia has finalized a contract for an advanced nationwide radar system, but doubts remain as to whether this alone will be enough to halt the flow of cocaine that passes through the Andean nation.
The contract with French aerospace firm Thales, which has been two years in the making, will cost approximately $215 million and will be used to combat drug trafficking, smuggling and to protect Bolivia's National Parks, reported La Razon. The 13 radars purchased represent the cutting edge of technology and would make Bolivia's radar system the most advanced in the region, according to la Razon.
The system will be operated by the Defense Ministry's Integrated Air Defense System and Air Traffic Control Center ("Sistema Integrado de Defensa Aérea y Control de Tráfico Aéreo"- SIDACTA) which will be based in the city of Cochabamba. SIDACTA will also have teams in La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Trinidad for air traffic control and counter-narcotics operations, among other functions, reported El Deber.
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Bolivia is not only the third largest cocaine producer in the world, clandestine airstrips there make its countryside a key transshipment area for Peruvian cocaine moved to domestic markets and to international trafficking points in Brazil and Argentina. Much of this cocaine is moved on small aircraft using Bolivia as an "air bridge" between Peru and Brazil, and there are over 1,000 clandestine airstrips used for drug trafficking in the country, according to Bolivian anti-narcotics officials.
The purchase of advanced radar equipment follows on from 2014 legislation allowing Bolivia's military to shoot down suspect aircraft that do not respond to warnings, and could prove a crucial tool in stemming the flow of drugs along this route. Such equipment has been credited with drastically reducing drug flights in Colombia, and more recently in Honduras.
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However, doubts remain over Bolivia's technical capacity to fully utilize this technology. Tracking drug flights in the air alone is not enough, and Bolivia will also require the ability to either interdict these flights or use them to identify and destroy landing strips, something that will require further investments in technology, intelligence gathering and operational capacity.