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    Feds use more unmanned aircraft to secure border

    CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) — Two Border Patrol agents walked by a patch of brush on a remote ranch and saw nothing. But 19,000 feet overhead in the night sky, a Predator unmanned aircraft kept its heat-sensing eye on the spot.

    In an operations center about 80 miles away, all eyes were on a suspicious dark cluster on a video screen. Moments later, the drone operators triggered the craft's infrared beam and pointed the agents directly to the undergrowth where two silent figures were hiding.

    Last week's mission was just another night out for a Predator program that is playing a larger role in the nation's border security as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection adds to its force of unmanned aircraft. The agency received its second Predator B aircraft in Texas last month and will add its sixth overall on the Southwest border when another is based in Arizona by the end of the year.

    The aircraft are credited with apprehending more than 7,500 people since they were deployed six years ago. They bring the latest in military technology to one of the oldest cat-and-mouse pursuits in the country. But on the border, even sophisticated devices struggle with the weather and conditions — just as humans do.

    "I'm trying to mark. I'm looking for a hole in the clouds," said an exasperated operator as he lost his video image of a "hotspot" in a stand of trees. Cloud cover, along with crosswinds and rain, are the drones' enemies.

    The aircraft can remain airborne for 30 hours though missions typically run eight or nine hours with the ground crews rotating in the control trailers. Smugglers of humans, drugs and guns are the chief prey.

    The Predators, which were being used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were introduced on the border in 2005, the year before Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on his country's drug gangs and violence along the border exploded. Since then, the aircraft have logged more than 10,000 flight hours and aided in intercepting 46,600 pounds of illegal drugs.

    "It's like any other law enforcement platform," said Lothar Eckardt, director of the Office of Air and Marine's Predator operation housed at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. "No different than a helicopter."

    A Predator system — the plane, sensors, control consoles and antennas — costs $18.5 million. The craft's 66-foot wingspan stretches out from a relatively small body supported by spindly landing gear, making them appear almost insect-like. A single propeller powers them from behind, allowing for relatively quiet flights.

    Inside the ground control trailer, a pilot and sensor operator sit side by side at consoles that include four screens each, a joystick, keyboard, several levers and rudder pedals. The pilot does the flying. The sensor operator works the infrared equipment and other technology under the aircraft's nose.

    Some question whether the remotely-piloted aircrafts' impact justifies the price.

    "The big knock on the UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) program ... is that it's so expensive," said T.J. Bonner, former president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union. He said the money would be better spent on more boots on the ground and manned aircraft.

    The Predator's touchiest missions are those that take it across the border into Mexico. A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable posted by Wikileaks described a meeting between then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and several members of Mexico's national security cabinet in which Mexican officials appeared to enthusiastically endorse the idea of surveillance flights. But publicly Mexican officials have been loath to speak about anything that could be perceived as impinging on the nation's sovereignty. In March, Mexican officials defended allowing U.S. surveillance flights and said a Mexican official was always present in the control room.

    The Predator program now has one continuous patrolling zone from the Texas-Louisiana line, down the Gulf coast and up the border to El Centro, Calif.

    U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who pushed to add the second unmanned aircraft in Texas and eventually hopes to have six based here, called them an "extremely important" part of the border enforcement mix of agents and technology.

    "At that height out there, they can cover so much territory," he said.

    Arizona will add its fourth Predator in Sierra Vista to help patrol from California to New Mexico and into West Texas. Eventually, one of the Texas aircraft will receive specialized maritime radar and concentrate on searching for smugglers in the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean.

    For now, the Predator's greatest focus is along the US-Mexico border, where the drug war has increased concerns about spillover violence. They are especially valuable in night operations.

    On that mission in the predawn hours Tuesday, the Predator guided agents tracking a group of six to eight illegal immigrants through thick clusters of oak trees and high grass an hour north of the Rio Grande. Seen through the agents' night-vision goggles the Predator cast a pillar of green light that illuminated two men lying in the undergrowth.

    "It's awesome," Border Patrol agent Daniel Hernandez said. "It's a great asset to have here; something that made my job a little more efficient."


    • Anoinette  •  Charlotte Amalie, United States  •  Yesterday
      Here's a job for our soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. Protect our borders and keep the drugs out of America. That's a war worth fighting for.
    • The Major  •  Jacksonville, United States  •  Yesterday
      So, the border guards shout, 'Hands up,' and arrest the illegals. Then the illegals are taken to jail, where they receive an hot meal. A few days later, they are placed on a bus, delivered to the border, and pushed across. Next day, they are back, in another location.
    • Albert  •  Birmingham, United States  •  Yesterday
      The bottom line is there is no intent by the feds to secure the border. The ease with which these illegals enter, return home and re-enter the US is utterly amazing.
    • Rick Yesterday
      Cut their food source here (their ability to earn money here) and they will quit coming, and they will leave on their own. Cost to taxpayers = $0. Start harshly punishing people that are hiring them. Hold corporate executives of companies that hire them, personally responsible. Send them to the same prison us common folks get sent to if we get in trouble.
    • purplerockrider  •  Cape Girardeau, United States  •  Yesterday
      We are protecting the world instead of home...bring home the soldiers in middle east and put along the border...PROBLEM SOLVED ! DEBT SOLVED!
    • Carol Yesterday
      While illegal alien and amnesty supporters state complaints from Americans about illegal immigration are some form of racism, there are many very real problems with illegal immigration.

      Anchor Babies: Birthright Citizenship Exploited
      Anti-American Attitudes
      Anti-Semitic Attitudes
      Attacks on Border Patrol and Law Enforcement agents
      Attacks on Free Speech in America
      Animal Abuse Increases
      Census Numbers: Negative Impact on Congressional Representation
      Civil rights: Devalued by comparison to illegal actions
      Child Endangerment
      Child Molestation
      Closed and Overcrowded Hospitals and Emergency Rooms
      Cost of Translators
      Consulates issuing Matricular Cards (ID Mexico won't even accept)
      Day Laborers loitering and creating public hazards
      Depreciated Wages for Americans and Legal Immigrants
      Deterioration of Common American Culture
      Desecration of the American Flag: Foreign Flags used aggressively
      Disrespect for American Laws
      Document Fraud
      Drunk driving injuries and deaths: Hit and Runs
      Ethnic Cleansing and Race Riots
      Food contamination (preparation 3rd world standards)
      Farm animals with in city limits
      Foreign Influence on US Politics
      Gangs, Graffiti, Drugs, Cartels, Smugglers, and Violence
      Gang Rape and unreported rapes
      High Birth Rates and Overpopulation
      Human Sex Slavery
      Identity Theft
      Increased Crime
      Increased Taxes for Americans
      Increased pressures on infrastructure (roads, traffic, water, sewer)
      Infectious Diseases
      Lost American Jobs
      Lost American Sovereignty
      Lost Self Governance of American citizens Vs. Globalism and Elitism
      Male Chauvinism: Gender inequality
      Not Speaking English, loss of common language, Press 1 for English
      Overcrowded Schools and Negative Impact on American Education
      Overcrowded single family homes
      Overcrowded Jails and Prisons
      Public Sanitation Loss: Trash and human waste in towns
      Racist Groups and Race Based Politics
      Remittances: Billions of dollars sent out of the US Economy
      Rule of Law: Fundamental principles of America sacrificed.
      Separatist Movements: Demands for autonomy
      Smear Campaigns and Lies: Dirty Politics
      Stolen American Taxpayer Resources: Tuition, Welfare, Licenses
      Taking limited seats in colleges at taxpayer expense
      Tax payer funds going to special interest groups (example) "LaRaza"
      Terrorism Threats and Loss of national security
      Trash and Negative Impact on Environment at border
      Unfair to Legal Immigrants
      Unfair Business Competition for law abiding companies
      Unlicensed and Uninsured Motorists
      Untaxed Wages
      Voter Fraud
    • Scrubs Yesterday
      Now how about implementing E-Verify as law....
      Heavy fines to employers who hire illegals $25,000, second offense a felon../
      Lets resolve this issue once and for all..........
    • dale s  •  Huntsville, United States  •  Yesterday
      it should be illegal to hire them PERIOD problem solved no worky no stay just say no worky
    • James Yesterday
      Report illegals and their employers to IRS Fraud Division 1 (800) 829-0433.
    • Concerned  •  Milpitas, United States  •  Yesterday
      LOL way to little and late. Should have started doing this 30 million illegal aliens earlier.
    • DEAN Yesterday
      Too bad the Predators can't scoop up illegals and deposit them back on their own side of the border.
    • don  •  Jamestown, United States  •  Yesterday
      Why doesn't the fed just let the states implement their own programs and each state deal with the illegals as they see fit.If the fed doesn't want to enforce federal immigration laws then let the state do their job for them.
    • James N Yesterday
    • Sarafina  •  Phoenix, United States  •  Yesterday
      Mexicans (and other South Americans) believe "Land of the Free" means everything is free, how can you blame them, plop out one baby on American soil and get welfare, foodstamps, wic, free medical etc. we are even expected to have bilingual teachers in our schools so they can speak for their parents who will never learn english. If all of these free-bee's did not exist, perhaps they would spend their time and energy working on their own countries.
    • Red Herring Yesterday
      I wish they would fly these drones over Washington to keep tabs on our loser politicians.
    • Divine Fayez-olabi jr.  •  Stony Brook, United States  •  Yesterday
      Boarder Militia + National Guard + Predator Drones x Hellfire Missiles = win?
    • Shell  •  Green Bay, United States  •  Yesterday
      Don't you have to have a Social Security Number with a history to get food stamps and stuff. The solution is easy produce a Social Security Number or birth certificate.
    • James Yesterday
      Report illegals who drive to your nearest DMV and friendly police station. Get the model, color and license plate number.
    • Ted S Yesterday
      Perhaps arming them would be even better.
    • jig  •  Salt Lake City, United States  •  Yesterday
      Neither party has any intention of securing the border. We are just being scammed.......again
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