US Tests Surveillance Equipment Along Mexico Border

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The US Border Patrol has begun testing new surveillance devices used in Iraq and Afghanistan, hoping they will serve as effective tools to identify migrants and drug smugglers along the US-Mexico border.

The US Border Patrol is trying out high-tech, camera-equipped surveillance balloons, or aerostats, along remote stretches of the southwest border. A spokesperson for the Border Patrol told the Associated Press that although the airborne cameras can see into Mexico, the balloons are intended only to help agents patrol the US side.

The balloons, which are on loan from the Department of Defense, have been used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to detect potential attackers around military bases.

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The use of aerostats by the Border Patrol are part of a larger effort by the US government to recycle equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along the US-Mexico border. Over the next several months, the Border Patrol has said it plans to test a range of other surveillance equipment provided by the Defense Department.

On the one hand, using surplus equipment, rather than constructing or purchasing expensive new technology, is certainly a less costly border control strategy than the one that led to failed initiatives such as a $15 million a mile “virtual fence.” The surveillance balloons, which can stay aloft for fourteen days, may prove to be a good alternative to drones, which are significantly more expensive to operate. Using such airborne surveillance equipment should also mean that the US does not have to deploy more manpower — including Border Patrol agents or members of the National Guard — along the frontier.

Still, the use of the aerostats does raise questions about the increasing use of equipment from the Department of Defense in patrolling the borders. As argued by a report released in April by the Washington Office on Latin America, April 2012, a greater security build-up along the US-Mexico border will only yield diminishing returns, due to the overall lack of spillover violence and decrease in illegal immigration. There are also some signs that drug traffickers are turning to methods that circumnavigate even the most sophisticated security equipment, such as bribing US truck drivers to smuggle illicit shipments.

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