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Corpus Christi, Texas: Predator drones (el Mosco) have yet to prove their worth on border

The nine unmanned aircraft are expensive to operate but their results are unimpressive, critics say. But one official says the criticism is shortsighted.

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By Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau
April 28, 2012, 9:16 p.m

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The drug runners call it “el mosco,” the mosquito, and one recent evening on the southern tip of Texas, a Predator B drone armed with cameras buzzed softly over the beach on South Padre Island and headed inland.

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Lyle Belew, the command duty officer in Predator Ops at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, on the night of April 18, communicates with a Predator pilot. (Brian Bennett, Chicago Tribune / April 19, 2012)

“We’re going to get some bad guys tonight, I’ve got a feeling,” said Scott Peterson, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection supervisory air interdiction agent. He watched the drone’s live video feed in the Predator Ops room at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, about 50 miles away.

As the unmanned plane flew up the winding Rio Grande, which forms the border with Mexico, Peterson fielded excited phone calls. One agent had seen known scouts for a Mexican cartel at a Dairy Queen, suggesting a load of drugs was coming through. Another called in the precise spot where the shipment would land.

Soon the drone’s infrared camera picked up a man hauling bales of marijuana from an inflatable rubber boat into a minivan on the Texas side of the river. Then it spotted a second boat. Agents readied for a major bust.

But the April 18 raid was not the success Peterson had envisioned. He wanted the drone to track the smugglers to a stash house, and perhaps to ranking cartel members. Instead, Border Patrol agents rushed to the riverbank, sirens blaring. They seized half a ton of pot, a 1996 Plymouth Voyager van and a boat. The smugglers escaped and no one was arrested.

The mixed results highlight a glaring problem for Homeland Security officials who have spent six years and more than $250 million building the nation’s largest fleet of domestic surveillance drones: The nine Predators that help police America‘s borders have yet to prove very useful in stopping contraband or illegal immigrants.

The border drones require an hour of maintenance for every hour they fly, cost more to operate than anticipated, and are frequently grounded by rain or other bad weather, according to a draft audit of the program last month by the Homeland Security Department‘s inspector general.

Last year, the unmanned fleet flew barely half the number of flight hours that Customs and Border Protection had scheduled on the northern or southern borders, or over the Caribbean, according to the audit.

And the drones often are unavailable to assist border agents because Homeland Security officials have lent the aircraft to the FBI, Texas Rangers and other government agencies for law enforcement, disaster relief and other uses.

The audit slammed Homeland Security for buying two drones last year and ordering an additional $20.5-million Predator B system in Cocoa Beach, Fla., this year, saying it already owns more drones than it can utilize. Each drone costs about $3,000 an hour to fly.

“The big problem is that they are more expensive than traditional methods” of patrolling, said T.J. Bonner, former president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union of border agents.

To help pay for the drones, Customs and Border Protection has raided budgets of its manned aircraft. One result: Flight hours were cut by 10% for the P-3 Orion maritime surveillance planes that hunt smuggling ships on the West Coast and in the Caribbean.

The amount of illicit drugs seized in Predator raids is “not impressive,” acknowledged Michael Kostelnik, a retired Air Force major general who heads the office that supervises the drones.

Last year, the nine border drones helped find 7,600 pounds of marijuana, valued at $19.3 million. The 14 manned P-3 Orions helped intercept 148,000 pounds of cocaine valued at $2.8 billion.

In an interview, Kostelnik dismissed criticism of the border drones as shortsighted. He sketched out scenarios, such as a nuclear plant meltdown or detonation of a dirty bomb, where the drones could help assess damage without endangering a pilot.

If a major terrorist attack occurred in Washington or New York City, Kostelnik said, he could put drones overhead in five hours, assuming they could be flown up from Florida or carried on a cargo plane, to help first responders and policymakers.

“It is not about the things we are doing today,” Kostelnik said. “It is about the things we might be able to do.”

The recent raid on the Rio Grande showed some of the pros and cons of the border drones.

Inside the Predator Ops center, the crew watched as the minivan filled with marijuana drove away on a dirt road. The Predator’s camera followed. Suddenly, a figure raced in front of the minivan, waving his hands for the driver to turn back.

“He’s spooked!” said Lyle Belew, the mission commander. “Stay on him!” he ordered the camera operator as the van did a quick U-turn.

Instead of risking a potentially violent standoff in a nearby residential neighborhood, the agents on the ground decided to cut the operation short and try to seize the drugs at the river.

A Border Patrol SUV suddenly appeared on screen, chasing the minivan back to the riverbank. Then six figures jumped out of the minivan and into the water, taking one of the two rubber boats. Several Border Patrol agents ran down the beach in pursuit.

In the Ops Center, Border Patrol liaison Hector Black worried that cartel gunmen might open fire on his agents from the far side of the river.

“Ask them to pan [the drone camera] to Mexico to make sure nobody starts shooting at our guys,” Black said. “See if there are guys with long arms,” meaning rifles.

The banks looked empty, but the camera clearly showed six figures and a rubber boat drifting down the dark river and back into Mexico.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times

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More US drones patrolling above border with Mexico

Congress pins hopes of securing US border on unmanned drones

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The MQ-9 Predator B, an unmanned surveillance aircraft system, is unveiled by US Customs and Border Protection at Libby Army Airfield on Oct. 30, 2006 in Sierra Vista, Ariz. (Gary Williams/AFP/Getty Images)

Teri SchultzDecember 6, 2011 06:21

LUNA COUNTY, New Mexico — Raymond Cobos, the sheriff in these parts, said the horrors of Mexico’s drug war aren’t limited to the big cities of Juarez or Tijuana, and are creeping closer and closer to the United States everyday.

Just across the border sits Puerto Palomas, a Mexican town where Americans used to go — in relative safety — to shop, eat out and seek low-cost medical procedures.

But last years things began to change. And then, Cobos said, shocking events began happening on his doorstep.

“We saw the violence first-hand: the bodies, the tortures, the decapitations. People going to church found three heads displayed there in the plaza,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any single town anywhere of any prominence in Mexico that hasn’t had at one time a series of horrible criminal events in which people have been murdered, tortured, mutilated.”

Now fear is growing that such violence will spill over onto American soil and some officials are hoping that an increased reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, will help stem the tide.

More from GlobalPost: Complete coverage of the Drone Wars

Although the number of Mexicans illegally crossing into the United States is declining, the potential for drug-related violence — especially as an ongoing war among Mexican drug cartels continues to spiral — has reestablished border security as a hot-button issue, and made the use of drones along the border ever more popular.

The Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, commonly known as the Drone Caucus, is a congressional group that works to promote the use of drones both domestically and abroad. It has doubled its membership since January while the number of drones used on the border to track illegal immigrants and drug activity has also steadily increased.

A bipartisan group formed in 2009, the Drone Caucus argues that UAVs are a peerless asset whose use should be amplified not only in weaponized strikes against extremists abroad, but also for the surveillance and tracking of those trying to breach US borders.

Drones now troll the southern border from California to Louisiana, and the northern border from Washington to Minnesota. With a potential flight time of more than 20 hours, the drones make it feasible to cover vast expanses of difficult terrain, while “pilots” split the shifts on the ground.

The first Predator drone was assigned to the southwest border in 2005. Four more soon followed, with the fifth delivered in October to the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, in the district of Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is a co-chair of the Drone Caucus. A sixth will soon arrive in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and two more monitor the northern border out of North Dakota’s Grand Forks Air Force Base.

More from GlobalPost: Are the drone wars legal?

Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik, a retired Air Force pilot who has been working with unmanned technology since the 1990s, said that in his current post as assistant commissioner for the US Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Air and Marine, the drones could prove an invaluable tool.

“If you look at how important the UAVs have been in defense missions overseas,” Kostelnik said from Washington, DC, “it’s not really rocket science to make adjustments for how important those things could be in the homeland for precisely the same reasons.”

Other than the fact that border patrol aircraft do not carry weapons — and despite the presidential campaign rhetoric, Kostelnik said they don’t intend to weaponize them — the units are identical to those used in Pakistan and elsewhere in terms of intelligence collection and real-time interdiction support for agents on the ground.

Tucson Border Patrol Division Chief John Fitzpatrick said it was difficult to put into numbers just how valuable the drones could be for border security.

“Whenever the aircraft shows up, the agents on the ground are more successful and more efficient in what they do,” he said. “It gives us a lot of capabilities we didn’t have before.”

He acknowledged that there was some discomfort with the technology from people living in the area, who worried that the government would be looking into their backyards.

More from GlobalPost: The rationale behind the Drone Wars

“We reassure them there’s accountability in everything we do,” Fitzpatrick said.

For now, supply appears to be outweighing the need and on Capitol Hill, the Drone Caucus appears to be in overdrive. The last three UAVs purchased for border patrol — at a price tag of $32 million from the 2010 budget — were not even requested by Customs and Border Protection, according to an official from the Department of Homeland Security who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Congress sent no extra money for missions or maintenance, despite reports that planes already in service remain grounded at times due to a shortage of pilots, spare parts and other logistical restraints.

Customs and Border Protection reported that drones have been responsible for the apprehension of 7,500 illegal immigrants since they began operating six years ago — a tiny fraction of the total number of arrests that have been made over the same period. Using other means, in six years, the agency has apprehended almost 5 million people.

T.J. Bonner, head of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union representing border patrol agents, said the low numbers prove that money is better spent on manned aircraft and boots on the ground.

More from GlobalPost: The people behind the drones

“People play with the facts around this stuff,” Kostelnik said with frustration, acknowledging that high-profile, targeted killings overseas have politicized even unweaponized missions.

When asked what help he needed most back in Luna County, Sheriff Cobos said he would prioritize “boots on the ground,” but wouldn’t object to a little unmanned help.

Unlike Texas and Arizona, New Mexico doesn’t have a facility to receive data from drones, so it has had to rely primarily on a low-tech approach — manually tracking known routes with a night-vision scope, searching abandoned houses and sidling along the border, watching for Mexicans climbing and jumping off the 12-foot high border fence.

The other states are “banging their drums while we’re using a popsicle stick,” Cobos said about New Mexico.

“Sooner or later the cartels are going to say, ‘Hey, why aren’t we utilizing this space? Why are we trying to shove it through Arizona and Texas?’” he said. “The possibility [there’s] going to be a catastrophic civil war in Mexico is pretty high, and I have to face the probability that at some point I have to deal with it.”

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