Fighting Drug Trafficking From Space
By Dialogo July 01, 2012
Federal security forces in Argentina have a new ally in their fight against
drug trafficking: satellite technology. The forces now have access to
high-definition images from 15 satellites that scan the country each day, including
those from the new Argentine satellite, SAC-D/Aquarius.
Argentine authorities have high expectations for the information the
satellite images will provide. Security Minister Nilda Garré said satellites can
reveal clandestine airstrips and alternate land routes used by drug trafficking,
locate illegal crop plantations, and uncover smugglers and even human traffickers.
The National Commission on Space Activities (CONAE, for its Spanish acronym)
is the state agency in charge of distributing satellite images to security forces.
Its secretary-general, Félix Menicocci, told Clarín newspaper in October 2011 that
satellites send two types of information: optical images (photographs) and radar
images. Experts say the latter allows more efficient tracking of drug trafficking
movements because they provide clear vision through thick vegetation or even at
Drug trafficking in Argentina
Over the years, the illegal drug trade in Argentina has grown to worrisome
proportions. “Argentina’s capability to implement complex long-term operations
against drug trafficking is limited,” said the last detailed report from the U.S.
State Department, which parallels reports from the U.N. and indicates a booming drug
business in Argentine territory.
The issue of cocaine in Argentina is twofold, according to the 2011 World
Report on Drugs produced by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. On one hand, the
country is showing positive signs compared to the rest of Latin America in terms of
tackling consumption. On the other, it is one of the transit countries through which
most of the European-bound cocaine passes. One of many examples was an airplane
loaded in Argentina with 940 kilos that was seized by the Spanish Civil Guard in
Barcelona in 2011.
The sophistication of criminal organizations has been a constant: Besides
growing in size, coordinating their interests and expanding their markets, they are
rapidly multiplying their resources. For example, hundreds of clandestine airstrips
are scattered in northern Argentina.
In the province of Chaco, the Argentine nongovernment organization Anti-Drug
Association discovered the operation of at least 141 illegal airstrips, largely
thanks to satellite information. Facing an increasingly complicated scenario,
Argentine authorities have focused their efforts on fighting the sophistication of
organized crime with more sophisticated state technology.
An agreement between the Ministry of Security and the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs (where CONAE is housed) permits the use of satellite images in the fight
against drug trafficking, but work still needs to be done to improve coordination
between state agencies.
The Ministry of Security understands that this entails a high degree of
complexity, so much so that its officials underscored the importance of synergy when
they signed the agreement in October 2011. The first approach between CONAE and
federal security forces became the “First Joint Course on Image Interpretation.” In
it, CONAE experts taught officers from the Gendarmerie, Prefecture and Federal
Police how to read the information on satellite images.
María José Meincke, an expert in drug trafficking and vice chairman of the
Argentine Association of Graduates from the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies
in Washington, D.C., said the key goals to the signed agreement are to ensure the
agencies involved harmonize their objectives and reach a level of collaboration
suitable for exchange and coordination. “In reality, data sensitivity and other
matters related to the rivalry existing between agencies results in that, for the
time being, information is not shared as it should,” said Meincke, who is
well-versed in interagency coordination and fighting transnational organized crime.
“Many times, each agency goes its separate way and performs its task
separately,” said Sebastián García Díaz, former secretary of Drug Addiction
Prevention and the Fight Against Drug Trafficking, a government institution in the
province of Cordoba. “It is very important to count on satellite control, but now we
have to determine what to do with this information, who will process it and act in
real time with resources, regulations and clear procedures?” He explained that these
matters will be solved by interagency coordination.
In the inherent complexity of the fight against organized crime, which is
becoming increasingly transnational and sophisticated, satellite technology will
undoubtedly play a fundamental role. The initiative in Argentina started on the
right track with the signing of an agreement on cooperation and information
exchange. The challenge for disparate state agencies is now to articulate and pool
resources to achieve a significant impact against drug trafficking.
The satellite images are and will be a fundamental tool to fight off drugs. As we keep using them more and more, they will direct the panchromatic cameras and proper radars towards them. I have no doubt that they will manufacture satellites for these purposes. I took some courses at CONAE, and at the Sat. Technical Lab. with Dr. V. H. Rios, a prestigious researcher at the UNT University. Very good report. Regards.