CORPUS CHRISTI, TX, USA. November 22, 2010 (Express News) – Without leaving American airspace, remotely piloted surveillance drones — outfitted with cameras that provide real-time video — fly along the Texas border searching U.S. territory for drug smugglers, illegal immigrants and potential terrorists.
They also are fully capable of peering into Mexico, where narco terrorists eviscerate the rule of law.
But does the U.S. government ever risk the international fallout of using the aircrafts’ high-tech surveillance abilities to take a peek south of the border — or share what they see with Mexican counterparts fighting for their lives?
The American public likely never will know.
“Officially, no,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose district hugs the Texas-Mexico border. “I will leave it at that.”
Thanks in part to Cuellar’s efforts, a Predator B in September began patrolling from Big Bend National Park to the Gulf of Mexico. He concedes it would be simple to use planes flying over U.S. soil as front-row seats at the edge of Mexico.
“When they are flying at 19,000 feet and have those highly sophisticated cameras, all they have to do is shift it slightly and you can see into Mexico,” said Cuellar, who was appointed chairman of a House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism this year.
Demonstration imagery released by Customs and Border Protection, which operates the drones, shows that even nearly five miles away, and four miles up in the sky, cameras can make out the color of pants and shirts of people on the ground.
It’s unclear who gets to see the video, aside from CBP. Border Patrol agents working the front lines don’t see it, nor does the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has taken an increasing role in border security.
Officials concede the program is so new that such matters are being fine-tuned.
CBP has six Predator birds. They each come as part of $18.5 million packages that include a mobile ground-control station and sensors.
They each weigh 5 tons, are wider than five lanes of interstate highway and can stay up for 20 hours — enough time to fly the entire 2,000-mile U.S. Mexico border on one tank of fuel.
Exactly where they fly is classified.
The agency steps gingerly around Mexico surveillance.
“We have not received any direct requests by the government of Mexico to keep an eye on their territory,” said Gina Gray, a CBP spokeswoman.
She confirmed Predators can see into Mexico, but that’s not their mission.
She wouldn’t discuss whether the planes had flown counternarcotics missions over Mexico, saying Mexico should answer questions about its airspace.
The office of Mexican President Felipe Calderón declined comment.
A drone did fly over Mexican territory in 2009, with the permission of the Mexican government, to help search for the murderers of Border Patrol agent Robert Rosas, who was shot and killed in Southern California.
Mexico is being ravaged by fighting between drug cartels as well as against military and police. More than 30,000 people have died since 2006, and the mayhem includes killing politicians and taking over towns.
“We are really getting to a critical point here where Mexico has to make a decision,” Cuellar said of sensitivities of U.S. involvement. “Do they want to preserve their civil institutions which are under attack?
Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said drones used by the military work well hunting terrorists in the open terrain of Afghanistan, but similar aircraft would have a tough time in Mexico, where criminal violence isn’t as discernible.
Even if cartel activity was spotted, information would be nearly useless if there wasn’t a way to quickly share with Mexico and trigger a fast response on the ground, said Vigil, now executive director of ManTech International, which provides technology to the U.S. government.
Although U.S. narcotics agents long have been in Mexico, there also has been public outrage of anything more intrusive.
“We have come a long way in terms of cooperation, but there are areas that still test Mexico’s traditional notions of sovereignty,” said Tony Garza, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
Garza said the United States should be open about its abilities and ask Mexico if it wants help.
Fred Burton of Stratfor, an Austin-based global intelligence company, said he understands Mexico’s concerns.
“We would not want a Mexican drone collecting information on U.S. persons and interests,” Burton said. “This use of this kind of technology raises a lot of privacy concerns that folks don’t like to talk about.”