U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent speech on America’s use of drones in the conflict with al-Qaida and its affiliates marked his administration’s first real attempt to explain a program that has generated much domestic criticism and international outcry. By contrast, few have taken notice of Brazil’s increasing use of surveillance drones, which it has been dispatching over its vast borderlands in an effort to control illegal immigration, contraband and smuggling. So far, Brazil’s drone initiative has not generated as much political controversy as Obama’s program. Nevertheless, President Dilma Rousseff’s administration must tread lightly lest it offend bordering nations that carefully guard their sovereignty.
An industrial and aerospace powerhouse, Brazil has begun to manufacture its own drones, though the country also imports some of the remotely controlled aircraft from Israel. Recently, Brazil’s drone program was placed in the international spotlight when the government announced it would deploy two unmanned aerial vehicles over Rio and Brasilia during the opening and closing of the Confederations Cup soccer tournament later this month. The drones, which are fitted with cameras, radars and sensors, will monitor the tournament in tandem with other security efforts.
Though the move garnered attention because of its domestic implications, Brazilian drones have been deployed to monitor the country’s frontiers since 2011 with less fanfare. Brazil is particularly concerned about its common border with Bolivia, which is vulnerable to organized crime. In La Paz, the Morales government has given Brazil the green light to send its reconnaissance drones over Bolivian airspace in an effort to monitor the cocaine trade. Bolivia is the world’s third-largest producer of cocaine, and officials claim that a whopping 60 percent of the country’s cocaine production is sent to Brazil. Bolivia’s top anti-drug official recently credited Brazil’s drones for enabling a series of recent blows against traffickers, and authorities report having destroyed more than 200 drug labs along the Brazilian border.