[News] Drug Surveillance Drones Frequent Flyers in Latin America
news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Feb 3 16:04:07 EST 2010
Drug Surveillance Drones Frequent Flyers in Latin America
New America Media, News Report , Marcelo Ballvé, Posted: Jan 27
Drone aircraft are increasingly engaged in
counterdrug missions over South American jungles and Mexican cities.
The drones represent the latest high-tech
escalation of Latin Americas anti-drug efforts.
Unlike the U.S. militarys Predator drones used
to shoot missiles at suspected terrorists in
Pakistans tribal areas, the models known to be
in use in Latin America limit their roles to
intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Latin Americas unmanned aerial vehicles, or
UAVs as drones are known in aviation circles
are not known to have flown armed missions.
Israel Aerospace Industries, a company that is
Israels largest industrial exporter, struck
recent multimillion-dollar deals in Ecuador and
Brazil for its large, 54-foot wingspan Heron drone model.
Israel Aerospace has offices in Colombia, Chile
and Ecuador and launched a new joint venture
company in Brazil in 2008. The manufacturer sees
promise in the Latin American UAV market.
As we have experienced in other markets, as the
(UAV) system becomes more familiar, new
applications are found and, as a result, the
market will grow, Doron Suslik, spokesman for
Israel Aerospace, wrote in an e-mail.
After the test, Mississippis U.S. senators
requested and received $9 million for Stark to
supply the Heron to Southcom as part of the Defense Departments 2010 budget.
Salvadoran Air Force Col. Nelson Hernández, who
commands Comalapa, also closely followed the Herons performance.
We are here to learn, he was quoted as saying
in a Southcom report on the Heron flights. It is
possible that perhaps in our future, we may
consider our own project or the acquisition of an
existing UAV. We are, so to speak, like sponges,
eager to see what we can absorb from this experience.
In the end, El Salvador didnt acquire a Heron,
because of the multimillion-dollar price tag.
Due to budgetary reasons, El Salvador is not
contemplating the acquisition of this type of
aircraft in the short term, the countrys
Defense Ministry said in a statement.
But other Latin American governments with more resources have made the leap.
In June, Ecuador acquired six Israel Aerospace
UAVs with $22 million from a special government
program established with oil revenue, according
to an Ecuadorean armed forces statement.
In 2008, Ecuadors President Rafael Correa
canceled an agreement allowing the Pentagon to
operate surveillance and interdiction missions
from a Forward Operating Location in Manta,
Ecuador. The four Searcher and two Heron models
were acquired to make up for the lost U.S.-led counter-drug flights.
The new UAVs are stationed at the Manta base,
from where they will watch offshore waters for
drug-runners and coyotaje or human
trafficking and also reinforce Ecuadors northern border with Colombia.
Mexicos government reportedly flies a drone
comparable to the Heron, an Elbit Systems Hermes
450, out of Ensenada, just south of Tijuana.
Ensenada residents have routinely spotted
drone-like aircraft in flight over the city and
one was even photographed this month by the
Agencia Fronteriza de Noticias de Tijuana, a news agency.
After publishing a photo of the mystery aircraft
online, Agencia Fronteriza identified it as a
Hermes, thanks to reader feedback.
The UAV caught our attention because of its
nocturnal over-flights in Ensenada and the loud
noise it produces while in the air, said a Jan.
18 article accompanying the photos.
It seems likely any Mexican purchase of Hermes
UAVs occurred in September 2008, when Elbit
Systems announced in a press release it had
closed a $25 million deal for Hermes and smaller
Skylark drones with an unnamed country in the
Americas. Janes Defence Weekly reported the
purchasing country as Mexico, citing an anonymous industry source.
A 24-year-old American, an aviation photographer
who wished to remain anonymous, told New America
Media he was in a private aircraft last month and
saw three large drones with a V-shaped tail a
defining characteristic of the Hermes at the
Ensenada air base that doubles as a civilian airport.
At press time, Mexicos Defense Ministry had not
yet answered requests for information on its UAV programs.
Mexicos Public Security Department, which
coordinates its countrys battle against drug
trafficking, has touted its own programs in which
smaller mini-drones keep tabs on drug cartels.
In March 2009, Eduardo Laris McGregor, who heads
air operations for Mexicos Federal Police, told
Mexican reporters the drone fleet consists of
four mini-UAVs and four balloon-type vehicles.
The eight UAVs are being used over epicenters of
drug-linked violence, including Ciudad Juarez, Culiacán, and Tijuana.
The planes are a low-cost model marketed for use
in urban warfare and low intensity conflicts. The
Orbiter has a snub nose, upturned wingtips, a
seven-feet wingspan, and is launched with a catapult-like device.
The Orbiters manufacturer, Aeronautics Defense
Systems Ltd. of Israel, also makes the Skystar
300 balloon acquired in the deal. The Skystar
takes video day or night (with infrared) as it
drifts, for up to 72 hours at a time, at an altitude of 1,000 feet.
Mexican company Hydra Technologies leads a
nascent national UAV industry, creating a small
surveillance UAV: the Ehécatl, named after the Aztec wind god.
The UAVs make sense for Latin America since they
are more cost-effective and remain in the air
longer than manned flights, said Ray Walser,
senior policy analyst for the conservative
Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
I think the more the merrier, he said. Right
now, there are some nations in which you simply
dont know whats going on in your own territory.
Two other Israeli manufacturers, Elbit Systems
and Aeronautics Defense Systems Ltd., have also
sold UAVs to clients in the Americas in the last two years.
The U.S. defense industry also manufactures UAVs,
including the Predator series deployed in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the transfer of
U.S.-made military technology to foreign governments is highly regulated.
If it is something you can buy off the rack in
Israel, you can avoid some of the scrutiny
accompanying U.S. sales, said Rick Van Schoik,
director of Arizona State Universitys North
American Center for Transborder Studies.
Latin American buyers of UAVs may be acquiring
them from Israel, but they are following the
example of the United States, which pioneered the
use of UAVs in non-combat law enforcement roles.
As early as 2004, the U.S. Border Patrol tested
Elbit Systems 34-feet wingspan Hermes drone to patrol the border with Mexico.
Today, U.S. Customs and Border Protections
300-aircraft fleet includes six unarmed Predator
B UAVs manufactured by California-based General
Atomics Aeronautical Systems, said John Stanton,
executive director for National Air Security Operations.
Three of the Customs and Border Protection
Predator Bs are stationed south of Tucson, Ariz.,
from where they patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.
Another Predator B modified for maritime
surveillance off southeastern U.S. shores will
soon be involved in drug enforcement missions.
The Pentagon has also deployed UAVs for counter-narcotics work.
Drones play an important role supporting allies
around the world in efforts to curb the illegal
narcotics trade, said U.S. Defense Department
spokesman Cmdr. Bob Mehal. He declined to discuss specifics.
However, it is known that the Miami-based U.S.
Southern Command, which oversees Pentagon
operations in Latin America, has been a testing ground for UAVs.
One Southcom test in May 2009 at a base in El
Salvador involved a Heron UAV manufactured by one
of Israel Aerospaces North American
subsidiaries, Stark Aerospace, headquartered in
Mississippi. The air base, Comalapa, is one of
the overseas Forward Operating Locations the
Pentagon established for counter-narcotics
missions in cooperation with Latin American and Caribbean governments.
We think it was a resounding success, Southcom
spokesman José Ruiz said of last years test, in
which the Heron flew over 100 hours, through
strong winds, heavy cloud cover and rain,
tracking a suspected drug ship in the Pacific.
Further south in the Andean region, reports of
drone over-flights triggered last months spat between Colombia and Venezuela.
Just before Christmas, Venezuelan President Hugo
Chávez accused Colombia of sending a spy drone
into his countrys airspace. Colombias close
military cooperation with the United States has
strained relations between the Andean neighbors.
Colombian officials denied Chávezs allegation,
quipping the Venezuelans may instead have spotted Santas sleigh.
Colombian armed forces commander Gen. Freddy
Padilla acknowledged having drones, but said his
were small aircraft with a range so limited they
could not have flown into Venezuela.
Padilla said his drones guard oil pipelines and
electrical towers often sabotaged by guerrillas.
The Brazilian Federal Police responsible for
controlling Brazils 10,500 miles of remote land
borders with 10 countries has one of the worlds
largest non-military UAV programs.
Last year, Brazil purchased 14 Heron systems for
the federal polices border protection, crime
prevention, and counter-drug duties, at a cost of
approximately $4.5 million per aircraft,
according to a government press release.
Demonstrations of the Heron were held in late
July 2009 at São Miguel de Iguaçu, near Brazils
triple border with Paraguay and Argentina.
According to Israel Aerospace, high ranking
military and civilian representatives from a
number of Latin American countries were present to observe.
The Herons will fly from four different air bases
distributed around Brazils huge landmass, the
Ministry of Justice said, touting the Herons
ability to film and photograph objects on the
ground from an altitude of 30,000 feet,
Some of the UAV patrols will cover the sparsely
populated Amazon River Basin, reported state-owned news agency Agencia Brasil.
Meanwhile, the development of an advanced made
in Brazil drone has become one goal of the
countrys ambitious new defense strategy,
approved by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in December 2008.
Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, in an article
earlier the same year for magazine Interesse
Nacional, even floated the possibility that any
Brazilian UAV be not just for surveillance but also combat.
This week, Jobim traveled to Israel where he
toured Israel Aerospaces facilities, and met
with Israeli defense and intelligence officials.
Jobim told reporters in Jerusalem he was
negotiating a new purchase of UAVs that would
include a technology transfer so that Brazil could manufacture similar drones.
Because so much is new and unknown about the
regions UAV programs, the implications for civil
society have not been widely studied or debated.
In the past it was just the United States flying
them, said Van Schoik of the North American
Center for Transborder Studies. The extent of
Latin American countries experiments with UAVs
raises the whole visibility of the issue.
One remaining question is whether a Latin
American country will deploy an armed drone.
Even with unarmed aircraft, there are risks. For
example, bad intelligence gathered by a drone
could result in a military or police raid killing
innocents, said Adam Isacson, of the Washington,
D.C.-based Center for International Policy.
Its not an outrageous thing to worry about, he
said, recalling an April 2001 incident in which
U.S. anti-drug agents working with Peruvian
authorities shot down a plane carrying American
missionaries. It depends on how the countries
who are using these things treat the intelligence.
Perhaps a more immediate risk is from
cross-border incursions with UAVs that trigger
diplomatic crises, undermining regional stability, Isacson added.
Within Brazil, UAV programs have already generated controversy.
After the federal police announced its new Heron
fleet, Rio de Janeiro officials sought federal
approval to acquire Skylark mini-UAVs from Elbit Systems.
Rio is in the midst of a police push to wrest
control of slums known as favelas away from drug
gangs before hosting soccers 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic games.
In October, a police helicopter was shot down
during an operation in a Rio-area favela and two
officers died, spotlighting the risks of piloted flights.
But not everyone agrees the introduction of UAVs
into an ever-escalating drug war is the right approach.
Its a mistake to think our problems with public
security will be solved with high-tech military
equipment, wrote Valter Pomar, international
relations secretary for Brazils governing
Workers Party, in a letter to Israels Haaretz newspaper.
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