Fighting Drug Trafficking From Space

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.

Interagency coordination

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.