Drug cartels often drop their product from small planes for it to be picked up by traffickers on land. But sometimes those air deliveries miss their mark and until recently, errant bundles of cocaine used to fall from the sky into the Dominican Republic's countryside so frequently that one rural cab driver tells TIME they were like "gifts from God," because residents who found them could sell them back to the narcos for a handsome price. "It paid better than any other job," says the cabbie, who lost his job and is separated from his wife because of the drug addiction he developed as a result of all that exposure to cocaine.
Mabel Féliz Báez, head of the Dominican Republic's National Drug Council, agrees that the Caribbean nation "was being bombed by these drug shipments." In 2007, at the height of the drops, at least 200 narcoplanes flew over the country, releasing thousands of pounds of cocaine at a time. But while much of it was en route to the U.S., Dominican officials didn't find much help from Washington in combating it. So they turned instead to a seemingly unheralded partner in the antidrug fight: Brazil. That year, Dominican President Leonel Fernández borrowed $93.7 million from the South American giant and purchased eight Super Tucanos, fast and agile single-engine turbo props manufactured by Brazilian aerospace corporation Embraer. Fernández "took a lot of heat for it," says Eduardo Gamarra, a U.S.-based adviser to the President. "That's a lot of money for the country."
Today the heat is off: the Super Tucanos turned out to be an unusually worthwhile drug-war investment. Since taking delivery of the planes in 2009, the Dominican Air Force says it has driven away drug flights to the point that they no longer enter the country's airspace. Other Latin American countries, including Colombia, which has used the Super Tucano to take out drug-trafficking Marxist rebels, and Peru, where the plane has shot down the kind of drug flights that used to evade aerial interdiction, report similar success. That has made the Super Tucano a rare bright spot in a largely failing global fight against drug trafficking. Chile now uses it to train pilots, and the U.S. Air Force is considering buying 20 of the aircraft for use in Afghanistan. (Embraer is competing against Kansas-based Hawker Beechcraft for that contract, which is expected to be announced by the end of the summer.)
At first glance, the Super Tucano (Portuguese for super toucan) is an unlikely antidrug hero. With a nose painted with growling teeth and a bubble-glass two-man cockpit, the plane looks like a World War II relic. But "it was designed for counterinsurgency and counternarcotics missions," says Bill Buckey, a former U.S. jet-fighter pilot and former deputy commando at the NATO airbase in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, who is now Embraer's North American vice president.
Perhaps the Super Tucano's chief asset is how quick and nimble it is in the air while still possessing more power than most planes used by traffickers. And precisely because it's less sophisticated than a fighter jet, less-experienced pilots can master it. But it can also be easily fitted with surveillance and targeting devices, and its .50-caliber machine guns can be supplemented with other artillery like air-to-air missiles, or, in Colombia's case, ground-attack weapons. What's more, says Buckey, the Super Tucano "can operate in austere airfields with a minimum amount of support."
That would be important in low-budget, narcotics-battered Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras, which are contemplating their own Super Tucano purchases. About 15% of all cocaine shipments to the U.S. last year at some point were airborne along the way, according to the White House, and many of those flights landed in Central America. In fact, Guatemala's northern Petén region has seen so many clandestine flights that it contains a junkyard for abandoned and dilapidated planes. Drug traffickers have cut down large swathes of protected rain forest there to build landing strips.
The Super Tucano's ascent hasn't been without controversy. In 2005, Venezuela negotiated with Embraer to buy as many as 24 of the planes. But fearing that Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's left-wing, anti-U.S. President, was on an arms-buying binge, the U.S. State Department killed the deal by refusing to allow American parts to be used. (Some 70% of the Super Tucano's parts and components come from the U.S.) The next year, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Brazilian officials tried to change Washington's mind by offering to support an anti-Chávez group, Súmate. The U.S. embassy in Caracas, according to the cable, rejected Brazil's proposal.
Did the U.S.'s opposition to the Super Tucano deal deprive Venezuela a country Washington often scolds (not always fairly) for being a lax antidrug enforcer of an effective weapon, especially since the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the country was the source of 41% of all cocaine shipments to Europe last year? Chávez critics say it wouldn't have made much difference either way: though Venezuelan officials adamantly deny the charge, captured Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled has claimed he operated numerous drug flights a day out of Venezuela by paying off army and naval commanders.
Dominican officials some of whom sit at the U.S. Southern Command monitoring center in Key West, Fla., and notify the Dominican Air Force when drug planes are detected on radar approaching the D.R. say many of the flights that used to "bombard" their country with cocaine packages originated in Venezuela. But that began to change after they deployed the Super Tucanos. In 2008, as much as 73 metric tons of cocaine passed through the D.R., but by 2010 that number had fallen to 13 tons, according to figures supplied to TIME by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Much if not most of that reduction resulted from improved air interdiction.
And yet the Super Tucano's success is also a reminder that the drug war's "balloon effect" (when interdiction squeezes one part of the trafficking balloon, the drugs simply move to another part) still holds true. "Our problem now," says Roberto Lebrón, the Dominican National Drug Control Office's spokesman, "is that traffickers are infiltrating our coasts with boat shipments of drugs. We've managed to cut the flights, but it's created other problems." Now, it seems, someone will have to develop a better antidrug boat. The Super Dolphin?