Spread of drone programs in Latin America sparks calls for code of conduct
At least nine Latin American nations are developing drone programs, raising calls for a code of conduct that will assuage concerns over potential misuse.
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Make that plural: eyes. Washington in August began patrolling the entire US-Mexican border with Predator drones, and several US counties reportedly have pilot programs in police and sheriff offices. The US also sends high-altitude drones over Mexico that "have been particularly useful in achieving various objectives of combating crime," the Mexican National Security Council said in a statement March 16, days after the controversial program was exposed by The New York Times. (The Associated Press later reported that the US has flown Predators into Mexico since 2009.)Skip to next paragraph
Why It Matters
Drone programs are proliferating, and incidents such as the recent one in El Paso – along with drones' controversial use in Pakistan, where a March 17 attack killed dozens of civilians – have put a critical eye on their potential to harm bystanders and spy on neighbors.
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Mexico in 2008 deployed its own drones to crime-plagued Ciudad Juárez (across the border from El Paso) and today operates up to 30 UAVs nationwide, says Guevara. Programs also exist in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. None are armed and most are discreet. Hugo Chávez in 2009 accused Colombia of sending drones to capture images of Venezuela, which Colombian officials dismissed as "Santa's sleigh."
Israel Aerospace Industries has sold its Heron to Mexico and Ecuador, where it has a branch in addition to offices in Brazil, Colombia, and Chile. Another Israeli firm, Elbit Systems Ltd., has sold its Hermes to Mexico and Brazil. The company's Brazilian subsidiary, AEL Sistemas, citing the "great strategic relevance" of the drone market in Latin America, declined to speak with the Monitor. In April, Elbit signed a "strategic agreement" with Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer, which lauded drones' "dual-use for monitoring of ports, agricultural, forest, and coastal areas, traffic, etc."
Brazil puts 'eyes in sky'
Brazil's president has openly advocated drone use. "This allows us to perceive transporting of arms, drugs, and suspect movements," Dilma Rousseff said while campaigning in August. Drones also enable police "to see the movements in the regions with the greatest commercialization and distribution of drugs."
In addition to dispatching the Heron to Brazil's porous western frontier – the 10,500-mile border touches 10 nations – police are also considering flying drones over violent cities and the Amazon, to fight deforestation and illegal exploitation of natural resources, according to a police spokesman, adding that 14 Heron drones are to be purchased by 2014 for $395 million. Adriano Kancelkis of São Paulo-based AGX Tecnologia, the first Brazilian manufacturer to produce UAVs, says he expects strong demand from the agricultural industry and environmental lobby.
Brazil is now negotiating a code of conduct with Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay to allow an incoming fleet of federal police drones to monitor their territories – under the promise that each government could view the data and flights would be limited.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Mexico expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, cautions that drones should not replace traditional policing methods. "Although [the UAV] is another tool and probably facilitates following particular individuals," she says, "I don't think it has the potential at all to bring any crippling blow to any particular organization."