by Marcelo Ballvé, New America Media

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 US 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.

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, DC.

“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 US defense industry also manufactures UAVs, including the Predator series deployed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the transfer of US-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 US 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 US Border Patrol tested Elbit Systems’ 34-feet wingspan Hermes drone to patrol the border with Mexico.

Today, US 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 US-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 US Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Bob Mehal. He declined to discuss specifics.

However, it is known that the Miami-based US 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.

After the test, Mississippi’s US 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 US-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. Jane’s 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.

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 SĂŁo 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, DC-based Center for International Policy.

“It’s not an outrageous thing to worry about,” he said, recalling an April 2001 incident in which US 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.


This article was originally published on Jan. 27, 2010 by New America Media.


AviĂłn UAV, no tripulado el captado en Ensenada
Agencia Fronteriza de Noticias de Tijuana, Jan. 18, 2010

Center for International Policy

From our Daily Report:

Venezuela: Chávez sees Curaçao threat
World War 4 Report, Dec. 18, 2009

Rio de Janeiro: 12 dead, chopper down as favela wars escalate
World War 4 Report, Oct. 19, 2009

Colombia nears deal with Washington for military base
World War 4 Report, June 17, 2009

Oaxaca: APPO defends university, feds send in spy plane
World War 4 Report, Nov. 4, 2006

Drones to patrol Mexican border
World War 4 Report, Nov. 3, 2006

See also:

by Peter Gorman, World War4 Report
World War 4 Report, May 2006


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, March 1, 2010
Reprinting permissible with attribution



Criminal Networks Exploit Italy’s Anti-Immigrant Backlash

by Giulio D’Eramo, World War 4 Report

It was a bloody beginning of the year in Italy’s poor southern region of Calabria. Twenty-one African seasonal workers, 14 local villagers and 18 policemen were injured between Jan. 6 and the 8, according to police reports. It was not a shooting between two rival families in the land of the ‘Ndrangheta, which recently overtook the Sicilian Mafia as the richest and strongest criminal organization in the country. It wasn’t another intimidatory bomb set to explode in front of a state building as has happened twice already in 2010, in response to the ongoing trials against members of the criminal organization. What took place was a confrontation between some of the poorest immigrants in the western world, and the local residents of one of its poorest regions.

However, the ‘Ndrangheta, making immigrants work and live like slaves through its control of local businesses and town governments, simultaneously exploits the politically controversial issue of immigration. The criminal organization is accused by many of being the dark hand behind the apocalyptic events that took place in the village of Rosarno—in order to create the institutional chaos that serves so well those who want to set themselves up as the substitute state. Supporters of this theory of preemptive strikes can also hold as proof something that went unnoticed by the mainstream media: a few days after the events, on Jan. 12, a two-year police operation brought to the arrest of 15 members and affiliates of the Bellocco clan—the very same that controls Rosarno.

A brief review of the violence in Rosarno and the events leading up to it points to two related factors—’Ndrangheta control of the region, and the Italian state’s incapability of addressing the immigration crisis.

On Jan. 6, two unknown youngsters shot rubber bullets at two African workers who were on their way to one of the abandoned hangars where most of the 1,500 seasonal employees lived in disgraceful conditions. News of the shooting rapidly spread through these veritable slums, and a thousand immigrants took their anger to the streets in a violent expression of discontent. Dustbins were set to fire, boutiques smashed, and a few occupied cars were rattled with sticks. The police intervened to prevent a confrontation between the immigrants and the local populace, who were starting to gather in the main square in response to the violence—many already prone to viewing immigration in the region as a “plague.” The police intervention was largely effective, although many people were injured in minor incidents in other parts of town. Five immigrants were hospitalized after local villagers intentionally ran their cars over them. One of the motorists were arrested, and one had a long record of mafia-related crimes.

The riots went on through the afternoon of Jan. 9—when the immigrant were largely confined in their main slum, called Rognetta, with a cordon of police protecting them from local residents who had gathered around it, shouting menacing anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The police reports maintain that the next day all the immigrants voluntarily decided to leave. But, as the UK’s Observer newspaper put it, “local people clapped and cheered yesterday as hundreds of Africans were moved by police out of Rosarno.” The ones without documents (some 700) were sent to the “welcome” camps the national government has established in Bari, while the others took the train in search for better luck. While the immigrants were moving out, the police started to knock down the shameful slums, throwing out their few abandoned possessions. So the only result of the riots is that immigrants fled the village (and their jobs), and that their slum was destroyed. (Where will next years’ seasonal workers sleep?) Some of them have since come back to Rosarno, looking for the same job and the same living conditions.

Observers such as the progressive website Articolo21 ask what happened to the Rosarno of the ’90s, when it was a model of ethnic integration—so much such so that the village council declared Jan. 6 as day of brotherhood among the local populations. Rosarno had been a frontrunner in the struggle against the ‘Ndrangheta. But the city hall that was once routinely shot at by mobsters was ordered temporarily closed by the national government together with the town council because of mob infiltration in October 2008. Until new elections are held this year, Rosarno’s municipal powers have been assumed by the local Prefect, official representative of the national state for the province of Reggio di Calabria.

But this has not stopped mafia intimidations. Immediately after the January riots, Loretta Ventre, 83, saw her volunteer social projects destroyed by the mobsters, who ransacked the canteen for seasonal workers she ran at her home, providing free meals three times a week.

The ‘Ndrangheta has finally shown that in their territory, not even the police could stop them.

A few miles from Rosarno lies the small village of Riace. A decade ago in this small village, the center-left mayor Mimmo Lucano decided to welcome refugees. After being almost deserted over the previous 50 years (as the young sought work in the cities), Riace now has 1,800 inhabitants, repopulated and revived by some of the Kurds, Nigerians, Eritreans and Somalis who have landed on the shores of southern Italy. This model was also adopted by many neighboring villages. In 2009 the regional government of Calabria adopted the first (and only) law in Italy to integrate refugees through small local projects of sustainable development, from housing and tourism to agriculture and artisanship.

Riace was last summer the set of Wim Wenders’ new movie on immigration, Il Volo, where it was described as a modern utopia. To this comment, the mayor responded in a telephone interview: “If ours is a Utopia, then the whole world including Rosarno is madness. Wenders’ Utopia is just normality.”

Then he gave his opinion about the riots: “The shooting that prompted the riots is a good thing for criminal organizations. It provokes widespread confusion, it destabilizes the institutions and it diverts the public’s attention from the underlying problems. I had hoped that immigrants wouldn’t respond to the violence, because it was obvious that their reaction would bring very serious retaliation.”

After the incident, much was made by the media about the silent racism of Italian society. People from Rosarno, a few days after the immigrants quit the village, demonstrated peacefully to reject any allegation of racism. The funny thing is that the only anti-mafia banner present, set up by high school students, was removed by the organizers. So the locals, while denying any wrongdoing on their part, were silent about the responsibility of the ‘Ndrangheta, whose control of the territory explains the subhuman working and living conditions of the immigrants. A war between desperate people, and a wall of silence to protect the criminals responsible for it.

Two years ago in Rosarno, two masked boys entered one of the hangers where the African workers lived and fired a gun, severely injuring two young immigrants. There were some protests, and a Facebook group called “Africans will save Rosarno” was created in response to the attack. But then everything went back to normal, the immigrants kept coming two months per year to get a 20-euros wage for a 14-hour shift in agricultural labor and sleep in crowded, dirty abandoned buildings—for companies which court documents show to be in the hands of criminal syndicates. Anybody wondering if they are crazy not to look for a better job should keep in mind that even an Italian with a 40-hour-per-week job in the private sector (for example, bartendering) only receives around 500 euros a month, in Naples as well as in Calabria.

Last year, the Italian government had agreed to set up a 200,000-euro grant in order to provide the migrant workers in Rosarno with at least chemical toilets and a drinkable water supply—but only the 50,000 from the center-left government of the region actually arrived. For a few months there were some toilets at disposal; then they were removed for lack of funds. The national government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi never delivered the 150 thousand euros promised. And everything went back to “normal.”

This example shows that the government knew that the immigrants were treated as virtual slaves, while their employers flourish also thanks to European Union funds for agricultural development that they use to hire undocumented and under-payed workers. Just after the immigrants were moved out of the region, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni dismissed any allegation of responsibility by putting the blame on clandestine measures to assist undocumented immigrants supposedly undertaken by leftist local governments—and, obviously, on the immigrants themselves, not perceived as victims but as criminals.

Along with this rhetoric has come a series of new laws which reduce the possibility for immigrants to get working permits, while at the same time toughening the legal consequences of illegal immigration. Under the new legislation, which passed last July, undocumented immigrants are liable to pay a fine of 10,000 euros ($14,200) and can now be detained by the authorities for up to six months. Obviously no undocumented immigrant could pay such a fine. But the criminal organizations who use them like slaves, saving millions of euros in regular wages, only risk incurring a modest fine in case they get caught. Additionally, people who knowingly house undocumented migrants can now face up to three years in prison.

If that were not enough, the new law also permits the formation of unarmed citizen patrol groups to help police with immigration enforcement. The law criminalizes immigrants while encouraging vigilantism—thus contributing to the dangerous spiral of violence.

It is important to understand that mass migration to Italy started in the ’90s, and in the past ten years the country has passed from 1 to 4 million estimated immigrants. Such a fast rise brings inevitable social tensions, especially in times of economic crisis. Figures such as Harvard economist George Borjas purport that native workers’ wages decline by 3% or 4% for every 10% increase in immigrants with similar skills. So behind the usual distinction between left and right on such issues stands an inherent contradiction between ideology and actual politics.

Berlusconi clearly summarized the different ideological positions in the aftermath of the riots: “The left wants a multi-ethnic society—we don’t.” If workers (potential left-wing voters) are scared of immigrants because they believe their presence drives down wages, entrepreneurs and businessmen (potential right wing voters) make good use of workers without legal rights. So potential supporters of right- and left-wing political parties are at odds with their own parties’ ideology.

The present and past governments, instead of trying to manage the situation, preferred to either instigate fear in order to build a consensus (Berlusconi), or simply failed to recognize the importance and dangers of the issue (Romano Prodi). Berlusconi and his allies are daily reaching out to new voters with their politics of fear, and pleasing their natural base by reducing the civil rights of immigrants. Increasing the desperation of the migrants further drives down the cost of their labor—which pleases many entrepreneurs, especially if they are part of a criminal organization, as in Rosarno.

So, as the left unsuccessfully tries to hide the fact that they are unable or unwilling to address the problem, Berlusconi gets two pigeons with one stone.


Giulio D’Eramo is a freelance writer whose work appears frequently in Index on Censorship, Articolo 21, Red Pepper and other online publications. He recently launched his own blog. An Italian native, he currently resides in England.


Italians cheer as police move African immigrants out after clashes with locals
The Observer, Jan. 10, 2010

Wim Wenders helms 3D pic in Italy
Variety, Feb. 5, 2010

From our Daily Report:

Italy: authorities detain African immigrants following violence
World War 4 Report, Jan. 12, 2010


Special to World War 4 Report, March 1, 2010
Reprinting permissible with attribution