Gaps in Mexico's Drug Radar Trouble U.S.
By Richard Parker
Journal Washington Bureau
MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's sole radar array is perched high in the dense forests of Chiapas. Its mission: detection of aircraft carrying Colombian cocaine.
Swiveling every 15 seconds, this long-range radar system is a source of obvious pride for the Mexican military.
After all, it is the same kind the United States deployed in Canada and Alaska during the Cold War. But the capability of this radar surveillance, known as Operation Alpha, is limited.
It can only "see" a couple of hundred miles. Its ability to detect incoming drug flights stops somewhere just south of the Guatemalan border and falls off before reaching the eastern and western coasts of Mexico.
Both the United States and Mexico have pledged cooperation in the drug war, and both acknowledge that control of Mexican airspace is essential in stopping the northward flow of cocaine.
But they haven't been able to agree on how to do it.
Mexico has balked at allowing surprise reconnaissance overflights by U.S. aircraft, and the United States hasn't been willing to help improve Mexican radar capability on terms acceptable to Mexico.
The Mexican military wants to build a radar site on the island of Cozumel.
"In my opinion, it is indispensable," says Gen. Arturo Olguin Hernandez, chief of Mexico's military counter-drug operations.
But the estimated price tag is $40 million.
"It costs a lot," Olguin said.
Mexico was to have decided on buying new radar systems last September but suddenly and inexplicably postponed its decision.
Mexico has yet to ask for help in building radar, and the U.S. Defense Department has yet to offer.
"They're not asking, so we're not pushing," says one Clinton administration official. "We're trying to build relations and find areas of common interest. Things that run counter to that, I'm not interested in."
Earlier American offers of assistance came with strings attached.
In 1994, the State Department offered two TPS-70 radar systems the United States no longer needed in the Caribbean, but only if Mexico's military shared the raw radar data with U.S. officers. Mexico refused.
Sharing such radar data with a foreign power, according to Olguin, was unacceptable to the Mexican military.
However, the Pentagon has agreed to the Mexican government's request that it conduct a study of what kind of radar Mexico needs.
Control of the air has always been important in the struggle against the cartels.
Faced with vigorous U.S. air patrols over the Caribbean in the early 1990s, the Colombian cartels changed their routes to fly directly into Mexico.
At one point, the emboldened drug rings flew 727s laden with cocaine into airfields in the Mexican desert.
Officials say 135 aircraft were detected slipping into Mexico between 1992 and last year. But Mexico began deploying troops to those airfields, and the number of landings diminished each year.
In fact, there were no 727 cocaine flights reported last year, according to military officers.
The Mexican military hopes eventually to gain full control of its airspace from drug traffickers. Full radar coverage is necessary to guide aircraft and Mexican troops aboard helicopters to airstrips.
The Mexican Air Force is fitting its 24 F-5 fighters with new radars, as well as night-flying equipment, in order to intercept and trail airborne smugglers.
Regardless, Mexican forces won't venture beyond the country's borders to chase smugglers over international waters.
"We respect the sovereignty of other nations," Olguin says.
Meanwhile, the effort to shore up radar coverage right now appears to have slipped off the list of top items on the U.S.-Mexico agenda.
The Clinton administration feels confident, according to one official, that there is little immediate threat from the drug cartels by air. Increasingly, shipments of cocaine are being made by sea. A recent intelligence estimate suggests that three to four times more cocaine travels up Mexico's coastlines than over Mexican airspace.
But Mexico is clearly anxious about radar coverage, and its Defense Ministry prefers to have its own radar systems.
Control of the air was supposed to come up during recent meetings of the High-Level Contact Group, led by U.S. Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and Mexican Attorney General Antonio Lozano.
Sources said the topic was put aside in favor of others.
And there is another problem on the horizon.
The United States and Panama are negotiating the exit of the U.S. Southern Command from that country in 2000. The future of important U.S. radar installations in Panama has not been resolved.
The Pentagon has acknowledged that its radars in Panama have considerable gaps along the Pacific Coast from Colombia north.
The Defense Department, according to a 1996 report by the General Accounting Office, wants to make better use of airborne radar systems instead of building new, expensive ground-based installations.
"We have our own questions to answer," said Bill Olson, director of the Senate Caucus on Narcotics.
"Coverage of the Pacific, Mexico and Latin America is poor and sporadic already," Olson said. "You've got a hole so big, you could drive a boat through it."