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