Drug Control:

Air Bridge Denial Program in Colombia Has Implemented New Safeguards, but Its Effect on Drug Trafficking Is Not Clear

GAO-05-970: Published: Sep 6, 2005. Publicly Released: Oct 6, 2005.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Jess T. Ford
(202) 512-4268
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

In the 1990s, the United States operated a program in Colombia and Peru called Air Bridge Denial (ABD). The ABD program targeted drug traffickers that transport illicit drugs through the air by forcing down suspicious aircraft, using lethal force if necessary. The program was suspended in April 2001 when a legitimate civilian aircraft was shot down in Peru and two U.S. citizens were killed. The program was restarted in Colombia in August 2003 after additional safeguards were established. To date, the United States has provided about $68 million in support and plans to provide about $26 million in fiscal year 2006. We examined whether the ABD program's new safeguards were being implemented and its progress in attaining U.S. and Colombian objectives.

The United States and Colombia developed additional safeguards for the renewed ABD program to avoid the problems that led to the accidental shoot down in Peru. The safety measures aim to reinforce and clarify procedures, bolster safety monitoring, enhance language skills of ABD personnel, and improve communication channels. We found the safeguards were being implemented by the Colombians and U.S. safety monitors. In addition, the program managers perform periodic reviews and evaluations, including an annual recertification of the program, and have made efforts to improve civilian pilots' awareness of the ABD program's procedures. Our analysis of available data indicates that the ABD program's results are mixed, but the program's progress cannot be readily assessed because performance measures with benchmarks and timeframes do not exist. The stated objective for the program--for the Colombian National Police to take control of suspicious aircraft--seldom happens. During October 2003 through July 2005, the Colombian Air Force located only 48 aircraft out of about 390 suspicious tracks pursued; and the military or police took control of just 14 aircraft--four were already on the ground. Only one resulted in a drug seizure. However, many of the suspicious aircraft land in remote locations controlled by insurgent groups that require time to enter safely. Yet, the air force rarely involves the police besides calling them at the start of a mission and before firing at the suspicious aircraft. In addition, many of the suspicious tracks are near border areas with Brazil and Venezuela, which is too far from an ABD air base for aircraft to intercept without refueling. Nevertheless, the number of suspicious tracks has apparently declined from 49 to 30 per month, but the track counts may not be consistent over time because they are based on subjective criteria, such as whether an aircraft has inexplicably deviated from its planned flight path. According to U.S. and Colombian officials, the reduction in suspicious tracks indicates that Colombia is deterring traffickers and regaining control of its airspace.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2005, we recommended (Drug Control: Air Bridge Denial Program in Colombia Has Implemented New Safeguards, but Its Effect on Drug Trafficking Is Not Clear, GAO-05-970) that the Secretary of State (1) establish performance measures for the Air Bridge Denial (ABD) program that include benchmarks and timeframes. We also recommended that the Secretary of State encourage Colombia to (2) seek ways to more actively involve the police in Air Bridge Denial (ABD) missions and (3) establish ABD air bases closer to the areas with the most suspicious tracks. State found the report to be an accurate assessment of the program, and stated that it is developing benchmarks and timeframes for its performance measures. Since the recommendation was made, State is (1) working with Colombia to develop timeframes and benchmarks for nationalization of the ABD program. Transition of the Air Bridge Denial program is underway, with a December 2007 signed letter of agreement and aircraft titles transferred to the Colombians. The next step will be a two-year transition of maintenance responsibilities to the Colombians. State (2) took the lead in facilitating regular meetings between the Colombian military and police. State officials told us in January 2008 that the Colombian police and military coordinate much more closely than in the past. State (3) encouraged the Colombian government to establish bases in areas near the most suspicious tracks. As of January 2008, the most recent trends show that traffickers are increasingly making short hops from the Colombian side of the border into Venezuela. The Colombians have now stationed interceptor aircraft at Marandau, close to the Venezuelan border.

    Recommendation: To help in assessing whether the ABD program is making progress toward meeting its overall goal of reducing illegal drug trafficking in Colombia's airspace, the Secretary of State should work with Colombia to define performance measures with benchmarks and timeframes. These performance measures, as well as results, should be included in the annual report to the Congress regarding the ABD program.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2005, we recommended (Drug Control: Air Bridge Denial Program in Colombia Has Implemented New Safeguards, but Its Effect on Drug Trafficking Is Not Clear, GAO-05-970) that the Secretary of State (1) establish performance measures for the Air Bridge Denial (ABD) program that include benchmarks and timeframes. We also recommended that the Secretary of State encourage Colombia to (2) seek ways to more actively involve the police in Air Bridge Denial (ABD) missions and (3) establish ABD air bases closer to the areas with the most suspicious tracks. State found the report to be an accurate assessment of the program, and stated that it is developing benchmarks and timeframes for its performance measures. Since the recommendation was made, State is (1) working with Colombia to develop timeframes and benchmarks for nationalization of the ABD program. Transition of the Air Bridge Denial program is underway, with a December 2007 signed letter of agreement and aircraft titles transferred to the Colombians. The next step will be a two-year transition of maintenance responsibilities to the Colombians. State (2) took the lead in facilitating regular meetings between the Colombian military and police. State officials told us in January 2008 that the Colombian police and military coordinate much more closely than in the past. State (3) encouraged the Colombian government to establish bases in areas near the most suspicious tracks. As of January 2008, the most recent trends show that traffickers are increasingly making short hops from the Colombian side of the border into Venezuela. The Colombians have now stationed interceptor aircraft at Marandau, close to the Venezuelan border.

    Recommendation: Because the police are seldom involved in ABD missions, the Secretary of State should encourage Colombia to seek ways to more actively involve the National Police.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2005, we recommended (Drug Control: Air Bridge Denial Program in Colombia Has Implemented New Safeguards, but Its Effect on Drug Trafficking Is Not Clear, GAO-05-970) that the Secretary of State (1) establish performance measures for the Air Bridge Denial (ABD) program that include benchmarks and timeframes. We also recommended that the Secretary of State encourage Colombia to (2) seek ways to more actively involve the police in Air Bridge Denial (ABD) missions and (3) establish ABD air bases closer to the areas with the most suspicious tracks. State found the report to be an accurate assessment of the program, and stated that it is developing benchmarks and timeframes for its performance measures. Since the recommendation was made, State is (1) working with Colombia to develop timeframes and benchmarks for nationalization of the ABD program. Transition of the Air Bridge Denial program is underway, with a December 2007 signed letter of agreement and aircraft titles transferred to the Colombians. The next step will be a two-year transition of maintenance responsibilities to the Colombians. State (2) took the lead in facilitating regular meetings between the Colombian military and police. State officials told us in January 2008 that the Colombian police and military coordinate much more closely than in the past. State (3) encouraged the Colombian government to establish bases in areas near the most suspicious tracks. As of January 2008, the most recent trends show that traffickers are increasingly making short hops from the Colombian side of the border into Venezuela. The Colombians have now stationed interceptor aircraft at Marandau, close to the Venezuelan border.

    Recommendation: Because many of the suspicious aircraft tracks are difficult for Colombia to locate and interdict given the current location of its ABD air bases, the Secretary of State should encourage Colombia to establish ABD air bases closer to the current activity of suspicious aircraft tracks.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Jul 9, 2014

May 14, 2014

Apr 30, 2014

Mar 26, 2014

Jan 13, 2014

Dec 9, 2013

Dec 6, 2013

Nov 20, 2013

Oct 29, 2013

Sep 25, 2013

Looking for more? Browse all our products here