Colombia historically has been a country full of security challenges. For more than five decades, its military and police forces were engaged in a bloody fight against armed terrorist groups and drug trafficking organizations that claimed more than 220,000 lives. These armed organizations such as FARC (in English, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) unfortunately brought Colombia an international reputation for high levels of violence and cocaine production.
The extended internal conflict in this South American country has led to improvements in military and police capacity and equipment. Colombian armed forces once lagging behind in technology and operational readiness are now strong, trained, and global benchmark institutions in the fight against terrorist organizations and illegal drug trafficking.
The National Police of Colombia’s Police Air Service is an integral part of this transformation. Since its founding in 1958 with a few Cessna 206 aircraft to control crime, this unit attached to the Anti-Narcotics Directorate has boosted its capabilities and exponentially increased its aircraft fleet. Thanks to the help of the United States, the Police Air Service currently has in its inventory 80 helicopters and 60 airplanes that record a total of about 42,000 flight hours annually to support police operations in both rural and urban missions.
Colombia has now reached a turning point that can change the country's social dynamics and reduce the intensity of conflict in a drastic way. After more than four years of negotiations, President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrilla group – Colombia's largest and most powerful terrorist organization with almost 7,000 men in arms – signed a peace agreement Nov. 24 that ended a half-century of armed conflict between that Marxist cartel and the Colombian state. As a result of this peace agreement, the country has entered a pacification phase called "post-conflict" in which the state institutions are modifying their objectives to respond to the needs and challenges of a country in peace.
One of those challenges is to improve security in the country's largest cities. For that mission, the Air Service has recently acquired five Bell 407 helicopters equipped with modern surveillance gear. Brig. Gen. Luis Enrique Méndez Reina, Commander of the Air Service, explains why: "Our strategic committees realized that the National Police had a great role in the rural areas, but in the urban areas there were citizens demanding a greater effort against street crimes. This required us to transform and refocus efforts from the rural regions to the cities. We have been fulfilling these new efforts with modern helicopters, such as these Bell 407s. We are also working with aircraft that serve as intelligence platforms, and we are working with unmanned aircraft systems that are the future in aviation."
The acquisition of these helicopters for urban surveillance began in 2014 with the purchase of five helicopters from Bell Helicopter Canada through the Ministry of Defense, under the leadership of Director of the National Police Gen. Jorge Nieto Rojas and Brig. Gen. Méndez. The price tag for the new helicopters was close to 15 million U.S. dollars. The decision to buy this specific type of aircraft was made after in-depth analysis – including acquisition costs, low noise levels and operating economy – and after several referral visits to police departments in U.S. cities.
Maj. Alexander Romero, a Bell 407 pilot and one of the most experienced aviators in the unit, explains the process: "This project arose from the need to support Colombia's biggest cities in urban security issues. These helicopters came with a basic configuration, then we searched through the mayor's offices for budget money that would allow us to add mission equipment to help us support police on the ground. We made some trips abroad to see how others operate. We flew with the Los Angeles and New York police aviation units, and we found that they were really integrated with the police on the ground through advanced equipment that is vital for that kind of mission."
The mayors of the major cities liked the National Police plan, Méndez says. "They were offered this idea, the possibility of working from the air with the personnel on the ground, as a different and innovative option to combat crime. The mayors received the idea very well and they decided to allocate the resources needed to implement the equipment in the machines." Currently, this surveillance program is operating in the four largest cities of Colombia: Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla.
The state-of-the-art equipment suite installed in these helicopters is robust and complex. The Bell 407 is equipped with a Star Safire 380 FLIR camera (valued at $ 1.7 million) that not only allows the crew to obtain daytime or infrared images, but also can perform face and license plate recognition from the air; A Trakkabeam A800 searchlight that police have nicknamed the "God's Eye;" a two-way data link that connects the helicopter with the city's automatic dispatch center in real time so they can stream live video; and a complete suite of radios. "Success was not to buy a single piece of equipment, but to buy hardware that worked together under a single integration," Romero explains.
This police unit operates with a team of 25 pilots and 25 technicians that rotates periodically in the different units throughout the country. Each city also has six equipment operators who coordinate the work of the helicopters with the police patrols on land. These operators, known as "tacticals,” usually are selected from each city’s command and control center because of their experience with surveillance cameras and communications.
When the pilots arrive at each city, they must study all the characteristics of the flight operations in that area of country: procedures manuals, flight limits and altitudes, communications frequencies, and hazards such as communications towers and electricity lines. The pilots also must know the critical crime areas.
Operation in Medellín
Medellín is a modern city internationally recognized by the Urban Land Institute as one of the most innovative cities in the world, but it still carries the stigma of being the most dangerous city in the world because of the Medellín Cartel. Images of a city besieged by crime, such as those in the “Narcos” TV series, are far from the present reality in the City of Eternal Spring.
Today the government and police presence is found in almost every corner of the city. You no longer see the “capos” (drug lords) with infinite economic power, but instead see the much smaller criminal organizations and drug dealers that are confined to specific neighborhoods of the city. In those places they have managed to consolidate their criminal activity, thanks to the urban infrastructure filled with narrow alleys, steep hills, remote sites and absence of roads for police cars.
That's where the new Bell 407 "Hawk," as the police call it, becomes the perfect tool to hunt down criminals. The complex maze of passages and staircases nailed into the mountains, previously considered impregnable, has now become the domain of the police Hawk. Its powerful electro-optical equipment has become God's Eye for ground policemen. Although there were difficulties coordinating air and ground policemen at the beginning, today a close relationship has been established and local officials request the presence of the helicopter for numerous operations.
Operating a helicopter in a city like Medellín is highly complex, says Romero, who has first-hand experience flying over the Aburrá Valley. "The topography of Medellín is very special,” he explains. “It is a city located in the mountains, and there are many dangers that can be quite damaging to the aviation operation. Moreover, Medellin Olaya Herrera airport is one of the busiest terminals in the country, so there are many planes in this confined airspace landing and taking off all the time. This has become a challenge, but we have handled it well. We have had enough coordination with the Civil Aviation Authority so we are able to carry out all these flights in a safe way."
Impact on safety
The results obtained by the Bell 407s for the National Police in Colombian cities have been surprising. They have become an effective deterrent against criminals. Every time a Hawk is flying, criminals stop operating because of the fear it generates.
"We have had really surprising results and we are very happy,” Méndez confirms. “We have all the statistics from the moment the helicopter goes to the air – how many times it does preventive work, and how many times it supports land operations, checkpoints and other activities that the police on the ground usually do. A clear example of this are the illegal drag races that involved several dozens of cars and put law abiding citizens at risk. For the policemen on land they were very difficult to control, but today these illegal races are gone for good thanks to these helicopters."
As a result of this positive impact, a gradual increase in the number of helicopters and the daily flight hours is anticipated. Romero wants the urban surveillance program to continue to expand. "We currently are flying five hours daily, and we usually attend more than seven cases per flight hour,” he says. “The goal is to fly at least 300 of the 365 days of the year.”
Whenever they see the helicopter in the air, Colombian citizens can feel safer knowing they have protective angels. That feeling goes hand in hand with the message Romero gave us at the end of our interview: "Rest assured that the National Police is fulfilling a service with heart.”