The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is utilizing high-tech surveillance drones to overfly the rugged Arizona borderlands to gather intelligence about drug cartel activities and illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico. There are now six of the high-altitude, unmanned, unarmed surveillance craft in use along the 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexico border. Four are based in Sierra Vista, AZ and two more overfly the border from Corpus Christi, Texas. “The missions from these two centers allow CBP to deploy its unmanned aircraft from the eastern tip of California across the common Mexican land borders of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas,” CBP said in a statement.
The Predator-B drones are equipped with cutting edge tools including powerful day and night vision cameras which enable remote operators to spot the drug traffickers and illegal immigrants slipping over the border from Mexico. The surveillance operations have led to the seizure of over 46,600 pounds of illegal drugs and 7,500 arrests along the southwest border.
Fans of the Predators say the $20 million aircraft are a perfect platform to keep a watchful eye on America’s rugged borders, but critics say the drones are expensive and have done little — compared with what Border Patrol agents do on the ground — to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, drug smugglers or terrorists.
Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) has said that the drones are so popular that a Predator could be elected president. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) pronounced domestic drones “invaluable.” Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) called them “ideal for border security and counter-drug missions.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a GOP presidential contender, argues that the solution to security along the frontier is not a border fence but more Predators.
Planning documents for the CBP envision as many as 24 Predators and their maritime variants in the air by 2016, giving the agency the ability to deploy a drone anywhere over the continental United States within three hours.