[News] Drug Surveillance Drones Frequent Flyers in Latin America

Anti-Imperialist News 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 America’s anti-drug efforts.

Unlike the U.S. military’s Predator drones used 
to shoot missiles at suspected terrorists in 
Pakistan’s tribal areas, the models known to be 
in use in Latin America limit their roles to 
intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Latin America’s 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 
Israel’s 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, Mississippi’s U.S. senators 
requested and received $9 million for Stark to 
supply the Heron to Southcom as part of the Defense Department’s 2010 budget.

Salvadoran Air Force Col. Nelson Hernández, who 
commands Comalapa, also closely followed the Heron’s 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 didn’t 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 country’s 
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, Ecuador’s 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 Ecuador’s northern border with Colombia.

Mexico’s 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, Mexico’s Defense Ministry had not 
yet answered requests for information on its UAV programs.

Mexico’s Public Security Department, which 
coordinates its country’s 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 Mexico’s 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 Orbiter’s 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 
don’t know what’s 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 University’s 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 Protection’s 
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 Aerospace’s 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 year’s 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 month’s spat between Colombia and Venezuela.

Just before Christmas, Venezuelan President Hugo 
Chávez accused Colombia of sending a spy drone 
into his country’s airspace. Colombia’s close 
military cooperation with the United States has 
strained relations between the Andean neighbors.

Colombian officials denied Chávez’s allegation, 
quipping the Venezuelans may instead have spotted “Santa’s 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 Brazil’s 10,500 miles of remote land 
borders with 10 countries­ has one of the world’s 
largest non-military UAV programs.

Last year, Brazil purchased 14 Heron systems for 
the federal police’s 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 Brazil’s 
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 Brazil’s 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 
country’s 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 Aerospace’s 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 
region’s 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.

“It’s 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 soccer’s 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.

“It’s a mistake to think our problems with public 
security will be solved with high-tech military 
equipment,” wrote Valter Pomar, international 
relations secretary for Brazil’s governing 
Worker’s Party, in a letter to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.

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