Explainer: Drones in Latin America

By Rachel Glickhouse

At least 10 countries in Latin America are known to use unmanned aerial vehicles for military and civilian purposes, while some governments are also working to develop their own technology.

Though commonly associated with a new stage in weapons technology, drones also serve purposes ranging from finding drug smuggling routes to discovering thousand-year-old civilizations. Countries across Latin America use drones for both military and civilian operations, such as surveillance or monitoring crops. Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), these apparatuses were initially imported from other countries, such as Israel and the United States. But now, numerous governments are investing in developing their own technology with the goal of exporting UAVs in the future. While governments spend millions in advanced UAV technology with radar and high-definition video, drones can be as small as toy planes and assembled by novices for as little as a few hundred dollars. As their use grows, drones have been at times been a source of contention between some neighboring countries, such as Colombia and Venezuela, as well as Brazil and Uruguay.

AS/COA Online looks at 10 of the Latin American countries known to use and develop drones.

Explore by country:

Argentina: Since the late 1990s, this country has developed surveillance and reconnaissance drones for the military. The Lipán M3 drone, which transmits high-resolution video, is the first of its kind in Latin America. First developed in 1996, it can be used at night and in bad weather. The navy is developing the Guardián drone to carry out reconnaissance at sea. There are also a number of smaller drones under development for the marines. In addition to developing drones for domestic use, last year Argentina proposed entering joint drone development with Brazil and creating UAVs for export.

In February 2013, the city of Tigre became the first in the country to employ drones for urban public security. The four Dutch-made UAVs provide real-time information on crime, fires, construction, traffic, and large crowds. 

Brazil: The military first began experiments with drones in the early 1980s, and now there are at least ten private and public initiatives to build drones in Brazil. Along with military missions, drones were used for surveillance during the Rio+20 conference in 2012 and the Confederations Cup in Brasilia and Rio in 2013, and plans are also in place to use drones during the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

In 2010, the Brazilian government began purchasing Israeli-made drones. The Federal Police has used these Israeli Hermes drones for surveillance and intelligence-gathering on Brazil’s borders. The joint Operation Ágata has employed drones to aid the police and military to find drug and contraband smugglers along the country’s borders, with a record number of drugs recovered during the seventh mission this past June.

Brazil also negotiates to carry out drone surveillance in neighboring countries. Bolivia allows Brazil to fly drones in its territory for the purpose of drug-trafficking reconnaissance. Brazil is in talks with Paraguay and Uruguay to allow for drone missions, though earlier this year Uruguayan authorities accused Brazil of invading its airspace with UAVs. Brazilian authorities aim to carry out joint UAV missions and drone development with Colombia as well.

A number of Brazilian companies are working to develop drones for military use. Since 2008, Flight Solutions has been developing small surveillance VT-15 drones for the Brazilian army. In April this year, Santos Lab, one of the country’s main drone producers, unveiled the Orbis UAV—the world’s first drone to be able to make a vertical takeoff. In 2011, Israeli company Elbit Systems and Brazil’s Embraer began a joint venture called Harpia Sistemas to produce drones and other defense equipment. Companies such as Bio TI and AGX are developing drones for use by agribusiness companies to monitor crops and to map farms. And for the first time in May 2013, Brazil’s civil aviation agency authorized a private company, XMobots, to fly drones for research purposes.

The military intends to expand its use of drones, including Brazilian-made ones. The Brazilian navy has employed the Carcará drone, built by Santos Lab, since 2007. These intelligence-gathering drones range in size from about four to nine pounds. The navy plans to buy more of these UAVs to use for coastal surveillance, search and rescue, and oil platform monitoring. The Carcará has also reportedly been tested by the Brazilian military in Haiti and intelligence-gathering missions by Rio security forces. Next year, the $50 million Falcão drone by Harpia Systems will begin operations for reconnaissance and border patrol. 

Chile: Following Chile’s 2010 earthquake, the country began flying drones. The Israeli military flew two UAVs there in March 2010 to help with post-quake assessment and monitoring. In October 2011, Chile purchased Israeli Hermes drones to use for patrolling along the country’s Bolivian and Peruvian borders to fight narcotrafficking. The Chilean army bought $3 million worth of mini-spy drones from Israel in April 2013 for real-time intelligence-gathering over long distances. These UAVs are small enough to be carried in a backpack and launched from remote locations.  

In November 2012, the Chilean military tested the Láscar—the country’s first domestically produced drone, under development since 2008. The armed forces plan to build 18 UAVs by March 2014 to use in military surveillance, as well as to monitor the country’s waterways and aid in natural disasters and search and rescue missions. Mining companies are also considering acquiring drones for research and monitoring purposes.

Colombia: This Andean country has reportedly been using U.S.-made drones since 2006 to fight drug trafficking, track guerrillas, and assist in hostage rescue efforts. Drones are also employed for surveillance during high-profile events, such as the May 2013 Pacific Alliance Summit. The armed forces now operate at least 50 surveillance drones, including the Israeli-made Hermes and the U.S.-produced ScanEagle. In July, the air force announced the purchase of two more Israeli-made UAVs, while the country’s police said they would consider buying mini-drones to aid urban crime-fighting.

Colombia is also developing its own UAVs, called the Navigator X2 and Iris, to monitor pipelines and critical infrastructure, gather intelligence, and fight drug trafficking. Drones will also be used for maritime surveillance. On top of domestic use, the government plans to sell drones to other countries in the region. One of the drone development projects is run by the military, and the other by San Buenaventura University engineers. The air force unveiled the country’s first domestically produced drone in July.

While Brazil has worked with Colombia on drone development, Venezuela has sometimes been at odds with its neighbor on drone use. The Venezuelan government accused Colombia of flying drones in Venezuelan territory in 2009 and 2010.

Dominican Republic: In July 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Janet Napolitano signed an agreement with the Dominican government to allow the Caribbean country to fly drones in joint anti-drug-trafficking missions. The two countries began flying U.S.-funded Predator drones in the Dominican Republic a month earlier, with the machines controlled by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Dominican anti-drug authorities based in a Santo Domingo control center. During the June test period, the drone helped detect several drug-running boats and allowed the two anti-trafficking authorities to recover over 1,700 packages of cocaine. The United States previously tested Predators in anti-trafficking missions in the Bahamas.

Ecuador: In June 2009, Ecuador acquired six Israeli-made UAVs and began using them for anti-drug-trafficking and surveillance operations along the coast. The two Herons and four Searchers work in conjunction with the navy and coast guard to identify suspicious vessels and combat smugglers, organized crime, and piracy.

The government announced last November that it would invest $6 million in local UAV development. In February 2013, the Ecuadoran air force began testing its own drone, called the Fénix, in the Amazon region. In addition to surveillance, the new drones will be used in cases of natural disasters and in monitoring the country’s natural resources.

Mexico: This country employs drones for a number of purposes, both for military surveillance and fighting organized crime, as well as environmental monitoring and assessment of natural disasters. The Mexican government operates at least 100 UAVs, according to a May 2013 analysis from Mexican security news site Mexico Seguridad.

The Mexican air force first acquired Israeli-made Hermes drones in 2009, and began using them the following year. The military also began developing its own drones in 2009, and in November 2011 the navy started flying domestically produced drones. Federal police use UAVs for urban surveillance, fighting organized crime, and monitoring oil infrastructure. In August 2013, a proposal was introduced to fly surveillance drones in Mexico City. Drones have also been used for surveillance during civil unrest, such as protests in Guerrero state in April 2013, and during large events, such as the G20 in June 2012.

Along with the military, numerous companies in Mexico produce UAVs. Mexico’s Hydra Technologies pioneered drone production, and its S4 Ehécatl, named after an Aztec god, began flights in 2006. SOS Global now also creates UAVs. In August 2012, the government announced it had partnered with the Sonora Technical Institute to develop drones. Mexico could also begin developing UAVs used specifically to fight forest fires.

U.S.-operated drones have also been flown in Mexico. The United States began flying Predator drones into Mexican airspace in 2009, though the practice was not revealed publicly until 2011. U.S. law enforcement has also flown the Global Hawk drone over the border, and credits drones to helping to locate numerous high-profile criminals. Still, specifics around U.S. drone activities in Mexico, such as how many drone flights have been conducted, remain unclear. A June 2013 Congressional Research Service report suggests that the U.S. Congress should explore UAVs to monitor illegal border activities under the Merida Initiative—the five-year-old, $1.9 billion U.S.-Mexico security agreement. However, some Mexican politicians voiced concerns in 2011, when U.S. drone use first came to light, that it violated Mexico’s constitution and sovereignty. 

UAVs are also used for non-military purposes in Mexico. For example, 3D Robotics in Tijuana produces civilian drones for scientific and commercial use, such as environmental monitoring. In April 2013, Mexico’s agriculture secretariat announced it would use drones to monitor crops.

Peru: This Andean country began developing its own drones as early as 1999. Between 2008 and 2011, the air force produced three UAV models. They were unveiled in 2012, with capabilities that range from radio transmissions to high-definition video. The armed forces announced last year that they would build a factory to produce the drones. The current drones are used for military surveillance, as well as for civilian uses, such as monitoring agriculture, fisheries, and mining. In 2010, the Peruvian army purchased five Israeli-made drones to track the guerrilla group Shining Path. But those UAVs have not been used because they were found to be “inoperable.”

Peruvian researchers are also using drones for archeological purposes. One researcher is mapping ruins from the 1,300 year-old Moche civilization along Peru’s northern coast, using data collected from the drones to create 3D models. The Peruvian government plans to purchase several new drones to search for archeological sites.

Uruguay: The military unveiled drones, called Charruá UAVs, in 2008. The drones were intended for use during disasters such as floods and fires, as well as for surveillance. Several private companies in Uruguay also use drones for mapping and monitoring construction and agriculture

Venezuela: In 2007, the Venezuelan government signed an agreement with Iran to permit the Andean country to begin building drones using Iranian technology. In June 2012, Venezuela debuted its first domestically made drone—intended for surveillance, such as monitoring infrastructure and the environment—using technology and financing from China, Iran, and Russia. The armed forces also used the UAV for drug trafficking surveillance: they were able to detect a plane from Colombia allegedly carrying drugs in September 2012. In May 2013, the military unveiled its three Venezuelan-made, Iran-financed Arpía drones, which will be used for surveillance against drug traffickers and border patrol. 

The Venezuelan military has been developing another type of drone, the Gavilán, since 2006. These UAVs could be completed by the end of the year.