The United States plans to expand unmanned surveillance flights, commonly known as Predator drones, into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to tackle drug smuggling, according to a Department of Homeland Security release.
DHS officials said Washington has been quietly testing Predator drones over the Bahamas for more than 18 months.
They said the latest move would dramatically increase U.S. drone flights in the Western Hemisphere, more than doubling the number of square miles now covered by the Department of Homeland Security’s fleet of nine surveillance drones, which are used primarily on the northern and southwestern U.S. borders.
Officials said an additional drone will be delivered this year to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s base in Cocoa Beach, Florida, for operations in the Caribbean.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it already has approved a flight path for the drones to fly more than 1,000 miles to the Mona Passage, the strait between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
“There is a lot more going on in the deep Caribbean, and we would like to know more,” said a law enforcement official, who prefers to remain anonymous, adding that drones may be based temporarily at airfields in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
The Predator B is best known as the drone used by the CIA to find and kill al-Qaida terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen.
U.S. officials said an unarmed version patrols the U.S. borders searching known overland smuggling routes.
Border agents said they recently deployed a maritime variant of the Predator B, called a Guardian, over the Bahamas with a SeaVue radar system that can scan large sections of open ocean. Drug agents can check a ship’s unique radio pulse to identify the boat and owner.
Department of Homeland Security officials said the expanded drone flights to the wider Caribbean are partly a response to demands from leaders in the western Caribbean to shift more drug agents, surveillance aircraft and ships into the area, as drug cartels have switched from the closely watched U.S.-Mexico border to seaborne routes.
Officials said, in the last four years, drug seizures in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico have increased 36 percent.