Some two dozen planes suspected of carrying drugs have been discovered in Guatemala this year, evidence that traffickers are continuing to exploit the country’s central location and its inadequate air control.
Authorities tracked the latest plane to the southern department of Escuintla, where it was abandoned and set ablaze on a remote tract of land. The plane’s discovery on July 9 brought the total number of suspected drug planes found by authorities to 22 in 2019, Prensa Libre reported.
Officials said the majority of planes land on hidden airstrips in the departments of Petén, Izabal, Retalhuleu, Escuintla, Quiché and Alta Verapaz, most of which are near the Guatemala-Mexico border.
In the large northern department of Petén, traffickers have carved up the Mayan Biosphere Reserve — the largest tropical rainforest in Central America — to make way for hidden airstrips. Policing this vast expanse has been difficult for authorities, and drug traffickers have routinely burned parts of the reserve.
Many of the drug planes headed to Guatemala depart from Venezuela, a CNN investigation reported. Amid the country’s collapse, drug flights taking off from the country have jumped to nearly one flight per day, according to the report.
The planes head north and mostly land on hidden airstrips controlled by local criminals in Guatemala and Honduras. The drugs are then trafficked into Mexico, and ultimately smuggled into the United States.
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Large swaths of remote land ripe for hidden airstrips and weak air control systems have made Guatemala a landing pad and transit point for drug flights loaded with cocaine.
Former Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said that many of the radars are not functioning and that those which do work are failing at their jobs. Meanwhile, former Defense Minister Cecilio Leiva said drug traffickers are aware of the radar system’s weaknesses and have been probing the country’s airspace.
Traffickers may be looking towards Guatemala as a destination for drug flights after authorities cracked down on other routes. Honduras — a primary transit point for drugs from South America — has purchased radars from Israel, coordinated closely with US authorities, and destroyed clandestine airstrips to reduce the frequency of drug flights there. Though flights have decreased, the country still struggles with them.
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Guatemala’s location is also of strategic importance to traffickers. Unlike neighboring Honduras and El Salvador, the country has a long shared border with Mexico.
Former US officials have also pointed to high levels of corruption in the country, saying that the presence of large numbers of clandestine flights points to complicity within the security forces.
In one notable case last year, a Guatemalan army colonel was arrested in Petén department after authorities trekked through jungles for hours to find the colonel alongside a Cessna 210 plane and $15,000. The drugs, however, had been unloaded by the time authorities arrived on scene, which, unfortunately, is an all-too-common occurrence.