US Drones Strategically Killing Cocaine Plants In Colombia?

By Charlene Badasie | 2 weeks ago

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According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the world’s coca plantations are found in Colombia. Far ahead of the next two countries on the list (Peru and Bolivia), an estimated 143,000 hectares of the region were covered with coca fields in 2020. Due to their powerful qualities as a stimulant, the leaves play an important role in Andean culture. But the country is also the leading global producer of cocaine, a highly addictive drug made from these leaves. Now, the U.S wants to use drones to eradicate these coca plants.

The news highlights how technology is becoming more important in America’s war on drugs and the cocaine trade. According to a request submitted by the U.S State Department, unmanned aerial drones would be used to spray coca plants across Colombia with powerful chemicals to destroy the drug supply at the source. The eradication process was traditionally accomplished with small aircraft or by officers on the ground. Pesticide sprayer drones are commonly used by commercial farmers in the United States.

“The Department of State, INL Bogota, has a requirement to purchase spray UAV systems to support eradication operations throughout Colombia,” the U.S drone request reads. It also says that the program will be under the command of the Colombian National Police. The document also explains why the State Department is seeking drones specifically. “Coca cultivation in Colombia remains at record highs and eradication operations in Colombia remain dangerous.”

As such, INL Bogota wants to bolster the CNP’s ability to increase the coca eradication rate and minimize the risk for police personnel in the field. Another document (seen by Vice) published along with the U.S drone request points to improvised explosive devices, ambushes, and hazardous wildlife being threats to those working to destroy cocoa plants. Images of what the potential flight path of a UAV would be shows a neat series of straight lines across several “spray areas.” These might be between two and ten hectares each.

Once operational, a “UAS Spray Team” at a base in Colombia would receive a geo-fenced polygon of the intended spray area. This would be based on high-resolution imagery or other mapping. Using this information, the team will plan and create the U.S drone spray mission with the relevant software. According to the document, a human team will also be deployed to a staging area to secure the spray region.

An Obstacle Marking Drone is used to mark and verify the perimeter of the spray area before the second set of Spray Drones set off to eradicate the crops. These U.S drones can return to the staging area to reload and refuel as required. The entire process should take less than two hours. Since the government has concerns about how Chinese devices might be used by the Asian country for surveillance purposes, the document stipulates that the system cannot contain major hardware, flight control firmware, or mission planning software manufactured in China.

This isn’t the first time the U.S Department of State has sought drones for this purpose. According to Vice, the department published a similar request in 2021. But the latest endeavor shows there may be renewed interest in the approach.