Colombia to Develop Its Own Drone Program to Combat Drug-Trafficking

The Colombian government recently announced plans to develop its own unmanned drones for military use throughout the Andean nation, a sign of the country’s evolving use of technology in combating drug trafficking and organized crime.

Colombia is in the works of developing its own drones that will be used for both military and civilian purposes, including the monitor the country’s vast oil pipeline network that comes under frequent attacks from the guerrilla-group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).  Since 2006, Colombia has used unmanned surveillance drones supplied by the U.S. in counterterrorism and counter-narcotics operations.

Colombian authorities were vague on whether or not the drones would be equipped to engage in combat operations.

“Here in Colombia we have decided to follow the same path that  Korea and Israel took, with big technological development,” said Colombia’s Vice Minister of Defense Janeth Giha, according to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.

Along with the drone development, Colombia will also install by 2015 military radar in the country’s central Meta province with the as yet-to-be-approved assistance of South Korea.

A classified U.S. State Department cable released by Wikileaks back in 2011 revealed that the U.S. Government supplied the small, ScanEagle unmanned aircraft to Colombia in 2006. The drone, which transmits real-time video back to monitors, was first used “to support U.S. hostage rescue efforts and assist” Colombia’s military.

“But it promises to be equally useful for combat against terrorists and in riverine drug interdiction,” wrote then-U.S. ambassador to Colombia William B. Wood, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The State Department cable did not go into detail to if the U.S. military maintained the drones or if they were given to the Colombian government as part of a multi-billion dollar aid program.

The ScanEagle drones were first deployed in 2005 by the U.S. Navy and Marines for intelligence-gathering in Iraq and have since been used in both Afghanistan and the Caribbean as well as in counter-piracy operations conducted by the U.S. Navy. The four-foot-long drones with a 10-foot wingspan are in demand due to their ability to take flight using a hydraulic catapult system, thus negating the need for a runway.

The use of drones has come under increasing scrutiny around the world, especially in U.S. operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. National sovereignty issues as well as civilians killed in drone strikes have created a sphere of criticism around the use of the devices.

Despite international controversy, in July the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to start unmanned surveillance flights into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico in a move that would more than double miles now covered by the department's fleet of nine surveillance drones. Previous technologies in the area have failed to meet the surveillance requirements.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection constantly monitors activity and trends of Transnational Criminal Organizations and works closely with other federal, state, local, tribal and international partners to combat smuggling in the source and transit zones," a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesperson said in an email to Fox News Latino. "This is an example of a bi-national, multi-agency, law-enforcement approach to address drug smuggling in the Caribbean."

The DHS hopes that the drones will be able to spot semi-submersible submarines and nighttime fast boat trips used by drug traffickers to transport cocaine and other drugs from Central America to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands. Statistics show that the U.S. has apprehended five semi-submersibles in the region, but this is only a small number of those authorities believe travel through Caribbean waters.

"There is a lot more going on in the deep Caribbean, and we would like to know more," said a law enforcement official familiar with the program, according to the L.A. Times.

However, Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, the top military commander of the U.S. Southern Command (USSSOUTHCOM), where he reports on the actions of ships and manned surveillance airplanes to the Joint Interagency Task Force South, questioned the effectiveness of the drones.

"I'm not sure," he told the L.A. Times. "Just because it's a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] that it will solve and fit in our problem set."

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