The controversial unmanned drone program used by the U.S. government to combat overseas terrorists and search for undocumented immigrants along the U.S. Mexico border will soon be scanning the blue waters of the Caribbean to search for drug traffickers, according to U.S. officials.
After testing the program quietly in the Bahamas for the last 18 months, the Department of Homeland Security 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 CBP, which is housed under the Department of Homeland Security, has asked the federal government for $5.8 million to implement the drone operations.
The revelation of the drones comes as Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, along with other high ranking officials, travelled to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to discuss combating drug trafficking with local officials.
"DHS is partnering with Caribbean nations to enhance border security in the region through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI)," a DHS press release stated. "DHS is conducting border security training in conjunction with CBSI to increase partner nation capacity to secure their borders."
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.
The Los Angeles Times recently reported that that the Federal Aviation Administration approved a flight path for the drones over the more than 1,000 miles of the Mona Passage, the strait between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
"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 Times. The official added that the drones may be temporarily based out of Puerto Rico, where there has been a record rise in crime recently, or the Dominican Republic.
Drones will also be launched out of a new control station in Corpus Christi, Texas to patrol the Gulf of Mexico and Cocoa Beach, Fla., for operations in the Caribbean.
Much like their counterparts in the Arab world, the use of drones has drawn criticism from a number of places.
"The DHS already uses drones along the US-Mexico border in drug and migrant interdiction functions," according to the security website Insight Crime. "To date, the craft have had a minor impact on border security, contributing to the capture of less than two percent of the undocumented migrants apprehended on the US' southwestern border in the 2011 fiscal year."
The site added that drones are a costly endeavor that requires a crew of up to 20 ground members in a supporting role. It also said Coast Guard helicopters can do the same job with far fewer people and no runway.
Some in the military have also questioned the effectiveness of drones, both in the Caribbean and along the border.
"I'm not sure just because it's a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] that it will solve and fit in our problem set," Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser told the L.A. Times. Fraser is the top military commander in the region, where he reports on the actions of ships and manned surveillance airplanes to the Joint Interagency Task Force South.
Another problem with the drones is, unlike those in Afghanistan that are used to strike high-profile terrorism targets, the unmanned aircraft in the Caribbean will not be equipped with weapons. Instead the drones will be able to spot drug traffickers and then report back to a command center, which will alert the Coast Guard, Navy or authorities from Caribbean or Central American nations to take action.
"The end game is always the problem," said Adam Isacson, a senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. "The drones can’t be armed. The traffickers are not terrorists per se. They’re not at war."
Test flights for the Guardian drone in the Bahamas has also showed substandard results in the Bahamas, with the drone assisting in only a handful of prominent drug busts during over 1,260 hours in the air off the coast of southeast Florida.
One worry that has been raised with drone patrols along the border that won’t likely be raised with patrols in the Caribbean is the invasion of people’s civil liberties.
"I guess you can’t sunbath nude on your yacht anymore," Isacson said. "But it doesn’t appear to be a huge civil liberties issue as it was in South Texas."
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.