Monday, June 28, 2004

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has begun the first sustained civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles, as part of a $10 million Department of Homeland Security initiative aimed at gaining “operational control” of the Arizona-Mexico border.

Two Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with electro-optic sensors and communications payloads are being used along the border to provide round-the-clock images to assist with border surveillance.

CBP spokesman Mario Villarreal said the craft, designed to augment what Homeland Security has called the Arizona Border Control Initiative, will assist manned aircraft, helicopters and ground sensors already in place.

The UAVs, he said, will be controlled and monitored by Border Patrol agents and are scheduled for use throughout the summer.

The border initiative, first announced in March by Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, seeks to confront terrorists; arrest and deter all cross-border illicit trafficking; reduce the ability of alien smugglers to operate along the Southwest border; and put an end to the rising rate of violent crime throughout Arizona, particularly Phoenix.

The smuggling of immigrants across the Arizona desert has spawned a lucrative and violent industry that charges $1,500 to $2,000 a person to be guided into the United States.

Mr. Villarreal said the UAVs will allow greater coverage and quicker response times in the rugged, desolate areas of the Southwest border, where many aliens have died while attempting to cross into the United States illegally.

Dozens of state and local police agencies and prosecutors, including the Arizona Department of Public Safety, are involved. Another key provision is an increase in the capacity of detention and removal facilities along the Southwest border.

“This is a very important partnership of law-enforcement and government agencies, who have come together for operational planning purposes in a joint effort to make the most effective use of resources to secure our nation’s border,” said David V. Aguilar, who will assume control of the Border Patrol as chief Thursday.

Mr. Aguilar, who formerly led the agency’s Tucson, Ariz., sector, said an additional 260 Border Patrol agents will be deployed along 260 miles of international border, where more than 400,000 illegal aliens were arrested last year — about 1,100 a day. He said the manpower increase will supplement the 2,000 agents on patrol in the Tucson sector.

Sixty of the new agents have been specially trained in search, rescue and remote tactical operations to search for illegal aliens who get lost or are injured, he said.

Nearly $1 million in new sensor technology also will be deployed as part of the initiative, as well as seven air-conditioned tents, each of which costs about $300,000 and can house about 40 detainees, and buses for transportation to permanent detention centers.

“Increasing the capacity of our detention and removal facilities, along with a focused effort with the government of Mexico to use every available tool to break the cycle of death to migrants in these dangerous terrain, where smugglers value profits more than human life, will be used,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

Mr. Villarreal said the UAVs are equipped with onboard sensors that provide surveillance capability giving Border Patrol agents a “bird’s-eye view” of smuggling and allow them to refocus resources to apprehend people entering the country illegally.

He said they also help with enforcement and officer safety by providing communications links for coordinating units on the ground, which he called “important in remote border operating areas.”

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