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Why Bolivia’s $215 Million Radars Are Not Targeting Drug Flights

Nearly seven years after Bolivia spent $215 million on radars to help fight drug trafficking, legal obstacles and a lack of resources continue to stymie their operation. 

But some observers doubt the feasibility of the September deadline, according to Iván Paredes Tamayo, a journalist who has covered the radar issue. 

“A month ago, Novillo told the Senate that they would work in a few more weeks,” he told InSight Crime.  

Following the discovery of a plane that carried half a ton of drugs from Bolivia before being found in Spain, Novillo said in early June that plans to put the rest of the radars in operation were 95% complete. But another senior official made exactly the same assessment in January 2022.

And, as the radars have been delayed, the country’s “narco-planes” problem has soared. While Bolivia seized 95 small planes connected to drug trafficking in 2022, far exceeding the previous annual seizure record of 18, 66 of those were confiscated during a single raid at an air field in March, while other planes were discovered abandoned. Others left the country undetected, such as those later discovered in Paraguay and Argentina

InSight Crime Analysis 

A lack of institutional cooperation and adequate legislation may have jeopardized the use of expensive technology in combating organized crime.  

In order to use the radars, Bolivia’s aerospace law must be amended to allow the police to coordinate with the air force in targeting clandestine flights, El Deber reported. Novillo has criticized the fact that the current law does not permit the air force to intercept clandestine flights and blamed this for the radars not being in use.  

The failure to amend protocols and laws hints at institutional issues that limit Bolivia in its fight against drug trafficking, according to Paredes Tamayo.

But there is also doubt as to whether these legal changes are really an obstacle. That legislative problems are preventing the radars’ operation is merely an excuse for the equipment’s delayed delivery, independent security consultant Samuel Montaño told InSight Crime.

“[These regulations] could have been fixed in less than 30 days,” he said. “It’s that easy.”

Even if the radars are put into operation, their effectiveness may be hindered by a lack of trained personnel and aircraft.

“What exactly is a radar network going to do for us, regardless of its capacity, if the Bolivian air force does not have the minimum fighter planes required to be able to intercept them?” asked Montaño.

Source: Insight Crime