LatinNews Daily Report - 30 October 2013

Starting to shoot down suspect aircraft

Venezuela has put into effect the regulations to implement a shootdown law approved 17 months ago. Within days a stream of announced shootdowns began to appear in the media, but most of these turned out to be the result of confusion with the previous practice of destroying suspected drug-carrying airplanes on the ground.

On 2 October President Nicolás Maduro announced that the regulations for the implementation of Venezuela’s shootdown law (Ley de Control para la Defensa Integral del Espacio Aéreo) had been approved. He went on to issue a warning: "Let the international drugs trade know that from today any aircraft entering Venezuela will be ordered to land peacefully or else will be shot down by our Sukhois, by our F-16s and by the entire Venezuelan military aviation [...] I will start applying that law immediately [...] in coordination with our military forces".

The law, first proposed by the late president Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) in 2011, was approved by the national assembly in May last year. It provides for "actions of interception, persuasion and disabling" of aircraft in breach of aerial circulation norms.

Twelve days later General Vladimir Padrino López, head of the strategic operational command of the armed forces, announced that military aviation (AMB) F-16s had destroyed two aircraft. He did so in a Tweet that said: "Integral aerospace defence @ceofanb detects and immobilises two incursor aircraft associated drug trafficking to south Apure state. We will vanquish!". The next day he posted a photo accompanied by the following text: "One of the 2 incursor aircraft immobilised by combat formation F-16 last night south Apure. The struggle is frontal!".

Most immediate press accounts took it for granted that he had announced an aerial interception and shootdown. A retired air force general, Manuel Andara Clavier, suggested that the photo was a montage since it showed an aircraft destroyed on the ground, not in flight, and no other evidence.

On 20 October Alejandro Keleris reported that another aircraft presumably intending to load drugs had been detected by the navy’s operational command and had been immobilised by the army on a clandestine airstrip in the south of Apure. Once again the media announced this as a shootdown.

The following day General Padrino announced that military aviation had disabled an aircraft while flying over Puerto Ayacucho, capital of Amazonas state, at midnight on 19 October, and a second one in the same area on 21 October.

Only at this point did it become evident that these had been the first two actual shootdowns since Maduro’s announcement. The previous ones had been interpreted as such due to a misreading of official legalese, which distinguishes between disabling (attacking an aircraft in flight) and immobilising (destroying an aircraft on the ground). It is not known if any of the latter were forced down by the air force, but most cases appear to have been incoming flights.

The authorities announced that with the three incidents in October, since the beginning of the year there had been 13 ‘immobilisations’, that is, destructions of aircraft on the ground. Padrino said that since the beginning of the year the national guard (GNB) had seized 33 tonnes of diverse drugs. He did not say what (if any) proportion of this was associated with the interception of aircraft.

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