QUITO, Ecuador –- Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on Monday defended his country’s air defenses after a small plane linked to Mexican drug traffickers this month crashed undetected on the country’s northwestern coast, raising fears among foreign officials that cartels are trying to establish a new “air bridge.”
In a Twitter message, Correa rejected the notion that Ecuador’s “air defense is defenseless,” saying the country has a full complement of supersonic and propeller-driven aircraft to secure airspace, in addition to “powerful radar systems still being tested but which before didn’t exist.”
On May 13, a single-engine Cessna 210 crashed in coastal Manabi province, killing two Mexican pilots, one of whom had a previous arms-related conviction that linked him to the Sinaloa cartel. Found in the wreckage was a suitcase filled with $1.3 million in cash. Traces of cocaine were also in the plane, which apparently ran out of fuel, law enforcement officials told The Times.
That the plane managed to penetrate Ecuadorean airspace without being detected by local authorities has provoked criticism among Correa opponents for his refusal in 2009 to renew the U.S. lease of the Manta air base. The base, located in Manabi province, was used by reconnaissance aircraft to monitor smuggling operations in the eastern Pacific.
Two AWACS radar planes and one P-3 reconnaissance aircraft were based in Manta until September 2009, when the surveillance operation was transferred to bases in north-central Colombia. Ecuadorean fishermen complained at the time that U.S.-led counternarcotics operations based in Manta led to human rights abuses and financial losses.
The crash has prompted questions among Correa critics about the status of a $60-million Chinese radar system the country ordered after Colombian bombers and commandos briefly invaded northern Ecuador in March 2008 to kill top ranking rebel commander Raul Reyes of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Air Force officials on Monday did not respond to a request for a status update on its installation.
Foreign counternarcotics officials fear that Colombian and Mexican drug traffickers may turn to Ecuador as an air hub from which to fly drugs north toward North America, as well as to return cash to Andean cocaine producers. Ecuador already has seen sharp increases in maritime smuggling via fishing boats and submarine-like vessels leaving its shores.
The May incident is the first known example of an airplane flying illicit routes in a bid to land in Ecuador with suspected drug profits or take off with a cargo of drugs, officials told The Times. Residents in the crash area told reporters they heard the plane flying low and without its lights on just before the crash.
One official commenting on condition that he not be named said that police in Venezuela, where more than 90% of such illicit flights have originated in the past, recently have cracked down. On May 16, authorities in Ecuador raided a drug processing lab near the crash site, seizing half a ton of cocaine.
El Comercio newspaper of Quito on Saturday said it found three crude airstrips in Manabi whose use are barely monitored by civil aviation authorities. Residents told the newspaper they saw an aircraft resembling the crashed plane on one of the strips in Jama three months before the crash.
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-- Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia, and Cristina Munoz in Quito, Ecuador
Photo: A photo released by the Ecuadorean presidency shows President Rafael Correa, right, meeting with Diego Garcia Sayan, president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, at Carondelet Palace in Quito in April. Credit: AFP/Getty Images