Latin American Report
Colombia Loses Its Secret Weapon Against the FARC
Last week's crash of a U.S. RC-7B intelligence gathering aircraft in southern Colombia not only highlighted the rapidly escalating U.S. involvement in the war against Colombia's guerrillas, but also opened a window of opportunity for the rebels. Two of their most recent offensives were quickly rebuffed by the Colombian military, almost certainly thanks to intelligence gathered by this aircraft. Until a replacement is rotated into the area, the FARC can move with greater freedom, and may strike back not only at the Colombian military, but at its U.S. allies.
The Colombian Army, long outmatched in the Colombian hinterlands by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), scored two quick and decisive victories over FARC guerrillas in recent weeks. The first incident occurred in the run-up to peace talks when the FARC attempted to strike at the mountain headquarters of paramilitary leader Carlos Castano, but was quickly intercepted and driven back by Colombian Army troops. The second incident occurred following the postponement of peace talks, when a column of FARC guerillas marching on Bogota was intercepted and routed by the Colombian Army. The successful interceptions of FARC attacks -- more than anything intelligence coups -- were quite stunning for a military that is renowned for falling victim to FARC ambushes. Clearly, something was up.
What was up, in the words of one of our readers from Cali, was Colombia's new "Ghost Plane," the U.S. Army's intelligence-gathering De Havilland RC-7B that is now down, crashed into the side of a mountain on the border of Putumayo and Narino states in southern Colombia. Rescuers have reached the widely scattered wreckage of the aircraft, which crashed sometime in the early morning hours of July 23, and have reported thus far finding the remains of four of the aircraft's seven member crew -- five U.S. soldiers and two Colombians. All seven are presumed to have died in the crash.
The RC-7B is a COMINT (communications intelligence) and IMINT (imagery intelligence) aircraft, based on the four-engined De Havilland Dash 7 commuter plane. According to Jane's Aircraft Upgrades, it is equipped with an HF/VHF/UHF/SHF intercept and direction finding system, an infrared linescanner, Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) camera, daylight imaging system (television camera), and an MTI/SAR sensor. The basic sensor package can also be augmented with low-light television, moving target indicator cueing radar, synthetic aperture radar, multispectral camera, acoustic sensor, precision targeting subsystem, and direct air-to-satellite data link. Variants of the RC-7B, of which there are approximately six total aircraft, have been used to aid FEMA disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Marilyn and for "operations other than war" in Haiti. The one that crashed in Colombia was based out of Fort Bliss, home of EPIC, the El Paso Intelligence Center.
The official details of the mission are sketchy and inconsistent. Early reports claimed the aircraft was carrying contracted U.S. civilian counternarcotics advisors, though it was quickly acknowledged that the aircraft and its crew were from the U.S. Army's Southern Command. According to Colombian Air Force officials, cited by Agence France-Presse, the aircraft was on a routine counternarcotics mission over Putumayo state, filming coca and poppy crops. Putumayo is an area of heavy drug trafficking and production -- and FARC guerrilla activity. The officials reported that the aircraft left its "work zone" and may have crashed due to a "navigational error" compounded by poor weather creating a low flight ceiling. U.S. officials speculated it might have crashed into an uncharted mountain, perhaps in part due to the chronic fog and low clouds in the area. The aircraft reportedly radioed in for the last time at 0140 local time from a position 50 miles south of San Jose del Guaviare. An alert was sounded when it failed to return as scheduled, six hours later.
While the cause of the crash remains unclear, the Colombian Air Force chief, General Hector Velasco, ruled out the possibility that it could have been shot down by insurgents, claiming it was flying high enough to be safe.
Contradictions and questions are rife both in details of the crash and in explanations of the plane's mission. The reason to scud-run below the low clouds would be to make effective use of daylight or low light television cameras, but it was some time between 0140 and 0740 -- mostly dark -- and the aircraft was at least equipped with an infrared camera and possibly a multispectral camera. It was also taking tremendous risk for a routine poppy filming mission, scud-running in unfamiliar and uncharted territory with a high value asset -- one of six RC-7Bs. But how low was it flying? According to General Velasco, it was high enough to be out of reach of the FARC. Assuming the FARC are minimally armed with bargain basement anti-aircraft systems, a man-portable 12.7mm machine gun, that would be over about 1,600 meters above ground level. If, as reports have indicated, the FARC has possession of man-portable surface to air missiles, "safe" would be somewhere above 2,300 to 3,500 meters. Of course, if the plane simply strayed into a mountainside, it was, for a moment too long, well within those ranges.
According to the Los Angeles Times, U.S. Southern Command refused to comment on whether the aircraft had been used to eavesdrop on FARC communications. However, the speed and precision with which the Colombian military has intercepted recent FARC columns suggests otherwise. The Colombian Army was twice vectored directly to major FARC columns, one of which was in the normal area of operations of the RC-7B. Colombia's El Espectador newspaper declared outright that, "A U.S. official confirmed that practically all radio transmissions by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia from the past two months" were intercepted by U.S. surveillance equipment. According to the newspaper, this has "provided the [Colombian] army a huge strategic advantage over the rebels."
The FARC, which arguably would do so if it could, has not claimed responsibility for the crash. However, the FARC leadership warned on July 26 that the crash was an example of what awaited the U.S. should it pursue what the FARC believes is a planned invasion. The FARC continues to aver that U.S. military advisors in Colombia are legitimate targets. The aircraft, a potent symbol of increasing U.S. involvement in the war against the Colombian rebels and a potent tool against those rebels, would have been a prime target for the rebels. Whether or not the FARC were in some way responsible for the crash, the incident removes a key advantage enjoyed by the Colombian military and has exposed some of the U.S. involvement in the country.
U.S. involvement in Colombia is growing rapidly. Currently the U.S. provides training for Colombian military officers and drug enforcement police. According to the Los Angeles Times, about a dozen U.S. soldiers are currently training a Colombian army battalion at the Tolemaida military base in Colombia, and next month the U.S. will reportedly begin training a Colombian river patrol unit. In 1998, the U.S. Southern Command carried out seven joint training operations in Colombia, involving some 30 to 40 U.S. troops each. Currently, 160 U.S. soldiers and 30 civilian Defense Department employees are acknowledged to be in Colombia.
The Dallas Morning News cited anonymous U.S. sources involved in the Colombian drug war as saying the definition of the FARC as "narcoterrorists" has sufficiently blurred the line between the drug war and the counterinsurgency effort to allow U.S. troops to deploy forward surveillance posts in rebel territory. Additionally, the sources claimed that U.S. intelligence services are now employing retired Special Forces personnel to conduct active patrols with the Colombian Army against the guerrillas.
U.S. military aid for Colombia has jumped since President Andres Pastrana took office, with Congress approving a $289 million dollar package for Bogota last October. According to Agence France-Presse, Colombia now ranks third behind Israel and Egypt in the amount of U.S. military aid it receives. U.S. Drug Policy Director General Barry McCaffrey has proposed offering $1 billion in aid to Colombia and its drug producing neighbors, and the Colombian military has requested $500 million.
While covert and overt U.S. aid for Colombia's counter-narcoterrorist effort has jumped, and U.S. rhetoric has skyrocketed, Washington appears committed to a still deeper involvement. A U.S. proposal for the establishment of a multinational intervention force for Latin America was rejected by the OAS, but the U.S. has since offered intelligence and aviation support to Colombia's neighbors. The line between the U.S. drug war and Colombia's guerrilla war, always semantic at best, is now gone. The only question remaining is how many U.S. troops and assets Washington will push across it. And in the meantime, with one of the key assets in small pieces on a Colombian mountainside, how quickly will the FARC move to exploit this window of opportunity to strike back? There is no doubt that after their recent U.S.-facilitated defeats, U.S. troops currently in Colombia will place far higher on the FARC's target list.