The twin-engine turboprop plane crashed in Colombia on a U.S. counter-drug mission Saturday, October 5, 2013, killing three American contractors and a Panamanian aboard. According to the U.S. military, the plane had been tracking a suspected smuggling vessel over the western Caribbean when it lost radio contact.
Two other Americans aboard the Dash 8 were seriously injured in the pre-dawn crash, the U.S. Southern Command said.
The plane was a “prospector” aircraft under contract with the U.S. Air Force. It was equipped with surveillance equipment and employed to track speedboats and other vessels that smuggle cocaine north from Colombia, said Jody Draves, spokeswoman for the U.S.-sponsored multinational task force in Key West, Florida, known as JIATF-South that runs interdiction in region.
Draves said the plane was operating in coordination with a Colombian surface vessel and had flown out of Panama. It was near that country’s border that it crashed, near the city of Capurgana.
The two injured Americans were rescued by Colombian soldiers and taken to a hospital in Bogota.
The names of the Americans were withheld pending notification of family members. Panama’s National Air Service identified the deceased Panamanian guardsman as Lt. Lloyd Nunez. Host-country nation service personnel routinely accompany U.S. military contractors on such missions.
Gen. Nicasio de Jesus Martinez, commander of the Colombian army’s 4th Brigade whose troops traveled to the accident site, ruled out the possibility that the plane was shot down by rebels active in Colombia.
“There was no aggression, no impact,” said Martinez, adding that it was too soon to determine the cause of the crash.
The region where it crashed is mountainous jungle and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, operate there along with drug traffickers.
Local farmers reported that the plane went down at around 1 a.m. in a rural part of Acandi, said Mayor Gabriel Jose Olivares.
Santiago Castro, director of Colombia’s Civil Aviation agency, said the plane wasn’t civilian so he couldn’t provide details about its route, origin or destination.
“We express our sympathies to the families of the deceased, and are particularly saddened by the loss of a Panamanian Air National Guardsman,” said Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command. “We also want to thank the Colombians for their outstanding rescue and recovery efforts.”
The mission was part of Operation Martillo (Hammer)– a $165 million, U.S.-led regional security initiative that focuses key shipping routes in the seas off Central America, where 90 percent of the cocaine headed to the U.S. travels. Fourteen countries participate: Belize, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States. Chile has also contributed to the operation.