American UAS Help Mexico Track Drug Traffickers

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been flying Predator UAS over Mexico for two years, helping Mexican authorities track suspected drug traffickers. These flights, approved by Mexico but never announced by either country, predate occasional flights into Mexico by the U.S. Air Force’s Global Hawk that began last month.

While Mexico has its own unmanned aircraft systems, they do not have the range or high-resolution capabilities necessary for certain surveillance activities. The Global Hawk can fly higher than 60,000 feet and survey about 40,000 square miles of territory in a day. They cannot be readily seen by drug traffickers — or ordinary Mexicans — on the ground.

President Obama and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón, formally agreed to continue the surveillance flights during a White House meeting on March 3. The American assistance has been kept secret because of legal restrictions in Mexico and the heated political sensitivities there about sovereignty.

Mexico’s National Security Council said in a statement Wednesday that unmanned aircraft have flown over Mexico on specific occasions, mainly along the border with the U.S., to gather information at the request of the Mexican government. “When these operations are carried out, they are always done with the authorization, oversight and supervision of national agencies, including the Mexican Air Force,” the council said.

It said that Mexico always defines the objectives, the information to be gathered and the specific tasks in which the drones will be used and insisted the operations respected Mexican law, civil and human rights. The UAS “have been particularly useful in achieving various objectives of combating crime and have significantly increased Mexican authorities’ capabilities and technological superiority in its fight against crime,” the council said.

The flights have been criticized by some Mexican politicians, who have often been sensitive to the involvement of U.S. agencies on Mexican soil. Senator Ricardo Monreal of the Labour Party said having U.S. UAS flying over Mexico is “unconstitutional and it violates national sovereignty.” He issued a statement accusing Calderon’s government of being “too submissive to the neighbour to the north” and said that Mexico’s Senate was never informed of either operation.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection began flying the Predator B into Mexico in early 2009, said an official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with knowledge of the operations. The agency operates four PredatorB’s along the border. Unlike the high-altitude Global Hawk, the smaller Predator typically flies at around 18,000 feet. The Predator flights were first suggested by the U.S. border agency, but once they actually started, the missions were based on specific requests from the Mexican government and were done with a Mexican official at the command centre where the flight was controlled, the official said.

“They only occur based on intelligence from the Mexicans,” the official said. The Predator flights continue and there have been dozens of them into Mexico. Mexico responded to the U.S. proposal by requesting flights twice a week, but that was soon scaled back to once every other week, the official said.

A former Customs and Border Protection employee close to the UAS programme said the flights were not that frequent. In 2009, he said, there were occasional “proof of concept” flights, which would last about 10 hours and would venture no more than 10 miles south of the border.

Sources: New York Times, Associated Press

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