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Fri Nov 9, 2012, 10:03 AM

The Future Role of Drones in Latin America


The Future Role of Drones in Latin America
Thursday, 08 November 2012 15:56
By Patricio Barnuevo, Council on Hemispheric Affairs | News Analysis

From surveillance missions at altitudes exceeding 35,000 feet to long-range targeted attacks, the U.S. military’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), often referred to as a drone, is designed to overcome any obstacle. American military commanders are envisioning endless possibilities for drones and are now seeking to expand their areas of operation. Currently, a majority of the United States’ 7,500 drones are operated by Central Command in the Middle East, leaving other command centers without UAV capabilities.(1) However, it is expected that the U.S. military’s Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) will see an extreme increase in its active military UAV fleets in Latin America. Latin American countries throughout the region have also begun to expand their own drone capabilities. The use of drones in Latin America is still in early stages of execution, yet despite these shortcomings, drones are expected to play an increasingly important role in Latin America in the coming years.

Currently, U.S. military drone capabilities are very limited in the Western hemisphere. One of the few areas where military drones are being actively used is along the U.S.-Mexican border in drug and illegal migrant interdictory operations. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has nine drones in operation along the border, which is not sufficient surveillance given the expansive boundary. With the consent of the Mexican government, the United States has also been launching drones in Mexico since 2009.(2_ In 2011, the Mexican National Security Council stated that they “have been particularly useful in achieving various objectives of combating crime.” However, at the present time, UAVs can only be used for surveillance in the Western Hemisphere, which has proven to be a limiting factor.

The UAVs currently operating over the U.S.-Mexican border have been inadequate. To date the drones have had an insignificant impact on border security. In 2011, UAVs assisted in the arrest of less than two percent of the undocumented immigrants detained on the U.S. southwestern border. In that same year, drones operated by the DHS helped find 7,600 pounds of marijuana valued at $19.3 million USD, compared to the 4.5 million pounds intercepted in 2011.[3]

Outside of Mexico, which falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), there are no other active U.S. drone sites in Latin America. However, this may soon change as the DHS and SOUTHCOM hope to use the devices to help locate the narco-submarines that drug cartels widely use to smuggle illegal narcotics through the Caribbean. In preparation for the usage of UAVs in the region, SOUTHCOM has been quietly testing them in the Bahamas for the past 18 months, but to the military’s chagrin, the UAVs have produced disappointing results.(4) During 1,260 hours of work in the Caribbean, drones only helped in a handful of prominent drug busts. These results are far less impressive when the operational costs are taken into account. Drones require hours of maintenance, cost $3,000 USD per flight hour, and demand dozens of staff to function properly. Moreover, alternative surveillance methods have produced more tangible, and cheaper, results

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