An unmanned aerial vehicle will begin patrols today along the state’s coastal area and border with Mexico as congressional delegates said they would push for a larger drone presence over Texas.
The Predator B drone will begin its first flights out of Corpus Christi’s naval air station, providing real-time intelligence information from attached cameras, sensors and radar systems to law enforcement authorities on the ground.
Predator Bs, which can stay aloft for up to 20 hours, have been used for surveillance in remote parts of the Southwest border since 2005, but today will mark the first time that one of the systems will be based in Texas.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said flight operations in the state mark a “critical next step” in combating drug smuggling and human trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. But with funding for two more of the unmanned aerial systems included in the recently passed $600 million border security package, Cuellar said more drones must be directed to Texas, which comprises roughly 60 percent of the nation’s 1,954-mile border with Mexico.
“We need multiple ones in Texas just because of the great size of the state,” Cuellar said. “It’s so much territory to cover (for one).”
Cuellar and other congressional representatives in Texas have worked for six months with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Aviation Administration to bring the aerial drone program to Texas.
Since the aerial surveillance program began over the nation’s borders in 2005, Predator B drones have logged more than 1,500 hours in the air, assisted in apprehending more than 4,000 illegal immigrants and helped seize more than 15,000 pounds of marijuana.
The expanded Predator B program now covers all Southwest border states and portions of the Canadian border. The use of the drones in Texas was expedited through the FAA’s certification process due to safety concerns from Mexico, where more than 28,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderón launched an offensive against the cartels in late 2006.
In response to growing concerns about the violence, President Barack Obama sent 1,200 National Guard troops to secure the border and urged Congress to pass a historic border security bill. The bill signed by Obama last month funds 1,000 new U.S. Border Patrol agents, about 250 more Customs and Border Protection officers and development of new Border Patrol bases and tactical communications systems.
The measure also included $32 million for two additional unmanned aircraft systems, bringing the total number for the border to nine once the new drones go online in 2012.
But U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the president’s administration must take further steps to secure the state’s border.
“We want immediate resources and attention to the growing security crisis along our southern border,” Cornyn said in a statement. “I will continue to press the Department of Homeland Security to devote additional Predators to cover the Texas border, and pursue additional ways to achieve real border security.”
The aerial drone will fly over the Texas-Mexico border between El Paso and Brownsville. In addition, CBP will patrol the state’s coastline along the Gulf Coast.
Cuellar watched last week from the operations center in Corpus Christi as a drone based elsewhere tracked eight individuals from more than 19,000 feet in the air.
The drones can be used to assist with serious events in Mexican border cities like Reynosa or Nuevo Laredo if requested by the Mexican government, Cuellar said. And they can be used for surveying after hurricanes or other natural disasters and as an additional tool during search-and-rescue missions in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere.
Rafael Lemaitre, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for CBP, said the drones serve as a force multiplier, allowing CBP to conduct missions in hazardous and desolate environments that are difficult to access for personnel on the ground.
He said decisions on where future unmanned surveillance aircraft are deployed will be based on intelligence and analysis of threats, terrain and operational need on the ground.
But Rosalinda Huey, a spokeswoman for the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector, said the state’s first drone will benefit federal agents as soon as it begins gathering intelligence and providing reconnaissance.
“Any additional resources that we receive are always going to be viewed as an advantage,” she said. “It’s going to be an enhancement for the patrols we have.”
Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4424.