More Latin American Countries Adopting Dangerous Shoot-Down Laws to Combat Drug Trafficking

narco plane shoot down

A new law allowing Paraguay to shoot down suspected drug trafficking flights continues a worrying trend in Latin America of opting for a response that has been shown to be extremely risky and disproportionate. 

Last month, Paraguay’s Senate approved a law that will allow the country to shoot down unauthorized or unresponsive planes traveling in its airspace, in an attempt to combat aerial drug trafficking.

Quite whether this will have any impact -- Paraguayan Senator Roberto Acevedo told InSight Crime: "The drug traffickers are going to laugh at us because Paraguay isn't in a position [to enforce the law]" -- remains uncertain. Regardless, it continues a worrying trend of these laws that have been increasingly brought into the Latin American drug policy dynamic in recent years.

The passing of the law makes Paraguay the ninth country in South and Central America to approve such legislation; Brazil, Chile, Honduras, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela comprise the other eight, though not all have used it, some have varying procedural protocols, and others - Peru - have since banned it. Though a law was proposed last year by the opposition in Argentina, it hasn't managed to gain backing.

The laws that have been passed in these countries typically involve the use of radars to identify suspicious aircraft which can then theoretically be targeted by the respective air forces and shot down, following unresponsive requests to land voluntarily.

This is by no means a foolproof strategy, with past tragedies highlighting the considerable dangers of these measures. Perhaps the most notorious was a 2001 incident in which the Peruvian Air Force -- relying on flawed intelligence on a suspected narco plane -- shot down an aircraft, killing an American missionary and her seven-month-old daughter. More recently, Honduras shot down two small aircraft in 2012 based on the assumption they were carrying drugs. No bodies or wreckages were found in either case, nor evidence produced to prove they were in fact trafficking narcotics. 

The backlash against 2012's events in Honduras unfortunately did not stop the country's lawmakers pushing through their own shoot-down law, much to the consternation of the US.

Ignoring the issue of civilian casualties for a moment, these laws are far from good legal practice. As Paraguayan Senator Acevedo noted to InSight Crime, shoot-down laws do not follow due process, and violate the presumption of innocence. Even if an air force correctly identifies a narco flight, therefore, to shoot it down is tantamount to capital punishment without trial. 

Furthermore, as Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) highlights in his extensive critique of these laws, these measures additionally violate international civil aviation law which prohibits shooting down non-threatening civilian aircraft.

Drug trafficking undoubtedly represents an enormous challenge for Latin American countries, and the need to be innovative in dealing with the issue is obviously pressing. Choosing the path, though, of a law that contravenes legal systems -- both nationally and internationally -- and above all else, has the potential to cost civilian lives is extremely worrying. As Isacson highlights, the US estimates aerial trafficking to account for about 20 percent of total drug smuggling in Latin America. In light of this, surely resources would be better deployed elsewhere, rather than funneled into a response that is disproportionate, illegal by international standards, and dangerous.