Surge in Unregulated Drone Use by Latin American Countries Raises Concerns

A new report finds that use of unarmed drones for both civilian and military spying has skyrocketed in Latin America, as the demand for drones increases exponentially in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela.

Author Marguerite Cawley notes that drones are changing the face of many Latin American militaries. Currently, drones used in South America and the Caribbean are all unarmed; a report by Wired in 2012 that the United States military planned on sending armed Predator drones to the region did not materialize. Spying missions conducted by drones are already causing tensions between countries that are concerned their neighbors will spy on their governments or civilian population using drones.

Surveillance has been the main use of drones in the region, and they have proven extremely useful in capturing guerrilla fighters and drug lords who use the dense jungles of countries like Colombia and Brazil to hide their operations. Brazil, Cawley reports, has the largest number of drones in Latin America, most of which were purchased from Israel. She notes that Brazil is not the only consumer invested in this product:

Meanwhile, Mexico's market for drones reportedly grew sevenfold last year, making it Latin America's biggest market for the technology. Additionally, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela all own UAVs and are working to develop their own drone technology.

The international community is divided on what a drone-armed Latin America means for the current state of world affairs. Russian and Iranian drones sold to Venezuela, for example, raise all sorts of concerns about their use to spy on the Venezuelan opposition, many of whom are already in jail on various false charges, due to the repression of President Nicolás Maduro. Given that country's tendency towards human rights violations, the United States appears concerned about Venezuela and allies like Ecuador and Bolivia acquiring this technology.

Similarly, Russia appears concerned that the technology could fall into U.S.-friendly hands. Last year, when the issue of drone use was brought before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, RT America published a list of countries that were using American drones to fight drug cartels and assorted guerrillas: "U.S. drones have been used in the Bahamas, Colombia, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Panama, Aruba, and Curacao." While the United States does not have a prominent role in selling drones to Latin America because of strict regulations, American drones have aided militaries in the region. 

Of particular note is Colombia, a longtime U.S. ally that requested assistance from the CIA and other organizations to destroy the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a paramilitary group once deeply associated with radical Marxist ideology that mostly serves today as a violent drug cartel. The American military under President George W. Bush adopted the strategies used against al-Qaeda in the Middle East to target the FARC, using drones to kill the FARC's top leaders until the organization was too understaffed to run properly.

The lack of legal framework for use of drones in the region is also a cause of concern, specifically for Latin American countries. Cawley writes that several sovereignty disputes have already occurred: "Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina have all accused Brazil of flying UAVs," she notes, and Colombians have used drones for surveillance in Venezuela in response to reports that the Venezuelan government was aiding FARC members.


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