Pirates - err no! Drug-runners of the Caribbean Part II Feb 24, 2019 18:57:57 GMT 1 Beemer, Samba, and 9 more like this
Post by garstonboy on Feb 24, 2019 18:57:57 GMT 1
We continue with a look at the drug-running operations in South America and the Caribbean.
So we’ve established that the means for processing the drugs were, to a large degree, flown in from large towns into jungle strips, close to where the production would be taking place. The next step in the logistics chain would be to get them out for distribution. So remote were some of these locations that they were not, incredible as it may seem, accessible by road. All supplies were either flown in, or brought in by one of the many large rivers which exist in Colombia. In 1985, we went to a town called Mitú in the south-east of Colombia, deep in the Amazon jungle about 15 miles from the border with Brazil, with a (then) population of about 12,000 people. Even today, there are no roads connecting it to the rest of the country. This would be a typical example of a drug-producing area.
Aircraft would be stolen to order, often from smaller airfields in the US, especially in Florida, and flown down to these remote sites, loaded with cocaine, and then set off, usually at dusk, to head to the southern US. Of course, the pilots who were flying them knew that a) the aircraft were potentially unreliable, therefore b) they might have to make a forced landing at some point during the flight; thus they would follow a route, which whilst not direct, would allow them to land in the event of an engine failure, a sort of early ETOPS. For this reason, they chose to follow the islands of the eastern Caribbean, and especially the Bahamas chain. In July 1982, I had to go to the Turks and Caicos Islands. The easiest way there was by Bahamasair and it transpired that I found myself following the same route, but in reverse.
The infamous drug runner, Carlos Lehder, had taken over the island of Norman Cay, which lies about two-thirds of the way up the Bahamas chain, and built a 3,300-foot long runway in order to accept his drug-running aircraft. He protected the island with armed guards and attack dogs and even radar was allegedly installed. Any visiting pilot who happened to land there was quickly warned off by the guards. The aircraft operating on his behalf would often be either refuelled, or unloaded and the drugs transferred onto small boats or other aircraft for the onward journey.
[credit Pilot's Guide to The Caribbean 1999]
Some didn't make it that far. On a trip down the Bahamas chain with Bahamasair, we landed at Great Inagua, an island with a long runway about half-way down the chain.
[credit Pilot's Guide to The Caribbean 1999]
The apron was littered with aircraft in various states of deterioration and since this was an intermediate stop, my time was limited, so I just managed to snap the more unusual ones:
Unsurprisingly, the history on these two is somewhat obscure. I suspect that, by this time, some of the drugs were being moved somewhere across the 1300 mile border between Colombia and Venezuela and being flown out from there, possibly with stolen or otherwise redundant local aircraft. In those days, I knew the head of the Venezuelan DGAC (Civil Aviation Authority) quite well and I asked him if I could have a copy of the civil aviation register. He promised to obtain a copy for me, but I never did get one.
N8022L, believed to be the last flying example of an Argonaut/North Star. It was allegedly owned by a company called Aircraft Salvage of Dallas, though quite how it became involved in drug smuggling is unclear. It is almost certainly the largest aircraft ever to be involved in such an enterprise.
I thought it only fair to include a photo of the aircraft which took me down there. The pilots told me that almost all the airstrips in the Bahamas chain were fair game for the smugglers, and the larger ones, such as Great Inagua would put oil drums, partly filled with sand, on the runways to deter landings after dark.
On to South Caicos, the very bottom of the chain, which along with Providenciales and Grand Turk, form part of the British Overseas Territories in the region:
Again, these two both have uncertain backgrounds. Local rumour had it that both had made emergency landings and it is perhaps significant that N3753N has a feathered port propeller. Both have the obligatory large freight doors and it is highly likely that drugs were involved. I was told that when staff arrived at the airport one morning, they found N61271 parked up, but there was no sign of a crew or any paperwork and interestingly, no drugs, either!
[Credit Hans Wiesman from his book 'The Dakota Hunter']
Not all of them actually made it to the airfield. This DC-3 ditched a short distance just short of an unnamed airfield in the Bahamas. A C-46 also missed a Bahamian airfield by a short distance and has now become a diving site.
So how were these aircraft able to get into the US? Well as previously mentioned, there was no SSR, so they were literally going in under the radar. Where did they land? I did a bit of investigation into this at the time and I was staggered by the number of simple strips there are in Florida. Clearly it would be impossible to police all these. Anyone who has been outside the main centres will have seen just how rural Florida is. Such is the road network though, that it is not difficult to reach such remote places if you know where they are.
So the routes at the time were from central Colombia, either via the Bahamas chain up to the US, or taken across the border to be flown out from Venezuela. Of course, the US eventually took measures to reduce the amount of traffic on these routes. SSR was installed and Great Inagua now boasts a full-manned Coastguard station equipped with an HH-60 and there are regular patrols by P-3 Orions. This has significantly diminished the airborne operations so more of the traffic is now being moved by sea.