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Drug Surveillance Drones Frequent Flyers in Latin America

New America Media, News Report , Marcelo Ballv Posted: Jan 27, 2010

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.

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 Jos 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.

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