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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.

By Nacha Cattan and Taylor BarnesCorrespondents / April 20, 2011

A US Predator drone armed with a missile is seen on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport. The Mexican government said on March 16, 2011, that unarmed similar US drones had flown over its territory to gather intelligence on organized crime.

Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Pool/Newscom

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Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro

In December, a UFO landed near Reyna Hinojos's house on Craddock Avenue, in an El Paso, Texas, neighborhood separated from Mexico by the Rio Grande. Her startled neighbors dragged the aircraft into their front yard and called the police, who identified the object: an Israeli-built unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operated by the Mexican government to monitor drug trafficking and human smuggling.

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The small drone had landed safely, says Ramiro Cordero, an agent with US Customs and Border Protection. It was promptly loaded into a police pickup truck and returned to Mexican authorities.

Ms. Hinojos was unsurprised by the incident, since her border town constantly swarms with surveillance vehicles such as helicopters – one of which crashed a few years ago.

"They might have their dangers," she says of drones, "but I feel safer knowing they're out there."

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Countries throughout the Americas are deploying drones as a high-tech answer to tackling drugs, gang violence, and activities such as illegal logging. From Canada to Brazil, at least 11 nations are flying UAVs over the Western Hemisphere, often Israeli-made. Brazil's Army in January purchased its first two Hermes drones, and its federal police force is set to deploy its first surveillance UAV by July.

Code of conduct needed

Drones are here to stay, experts say, and the time is past for debate. At this point in the game, Latin America should collaborate to develop a code of conduct that will prevent the arming of drones and assuage civilian concerns, says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a Latin America specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington.

"I think it's the maturation of Latin American defense systems," she says, while cautioning that the potential to arm drones could turn the project into a "double-edged sword."

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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