Guatemala’s entire helicopter fleet designed for drug interdiction was grounded in 2016 due to poor maintenance, according to a Department of State Inspector General report released Friday. It was the second major grounding of the Guatemalan air fleet in nearly four years.
The suspension of the air interdiction program meant drug traffickers were able to smuggle drugs and illegal immigrants through Guatemala to the United States with a reduced fear of arrest. Guatemala shares a border with Mexico and is the main Central American pathway for drugs and illegal immigrants to the United States.
In the last year of the Obama administration, “the helicopters furnished to the Government of Guatemala could not be used for drug interdiction missions because safety concerns led to a 2016 decision to ground the helicopters,” according to the IG. The helicopters and associated equipment given to the Guatemalans was valued at $11.7 million.
The Obama administration transferred the helicopters to Guatemala in 2013 and decided to end U.S. air surveillance of drug traffickers in the country. It delivered a fleet of six Huey II helicopters to Guatemala, which hailed the transfer.
But the program encountered problems as soon as the program was inaugurated in August 2013. By December 2013, it became apparent the Guatemalan government was incapable of maintaining the aircraft.
Five of six of the Huey helicopters were grounded that month. A year after the program began, none of the helicopters met the 120 hours of flight time required for training purposes.
A 2016 crash of one helicopter resulted in the second full grounding of all other aircraft, according to the IG.
“This accident led the Government of Guatemala to ground the remaining five helicopters in 2016 because poor maintenance and questionable procurement practices prevented them from meeting” the U.S. International Narcotics and Law Enforcement’s airworthiness standards, the report said.
“As of November 2017, the helicopters remained out of service and unavailable to conduct drug interdiction missions,” the IG concluded.
In June 2017 the U.S. Embassy signed a letter of agreement with Guatemala providing $49 million for four more helicopters. The agreement required the Guatemalan government to set “performance benchmarks” for maintaining the helicopter fleet, the IG report said.
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