The Colombian military began using U.S.-supplied surveillance drones for counterterrorism and counter-narcotics operations in 2006, according to a classified State Department cable released Wednesday by WikiLeaks.
The small, ScanEagle unmanned aircraft transmits real-time video of stationary and moving targets. According to the December 2006 cable from then-U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William B. Wood, the aircraft initially were to be used “to support U.S. hostage rescue efforts and assist” the Colombian military’s pursuit of guerrilla leaders.
“But it promises to be equally useful for combat against terrorists and in riverine drug interdiction,” Wood wrote.
The cable, which referred to a “test package” of drones that arrived in Colombia in July 2006, called them a “potentially high-impact new addition” to U.S.-Colombian intelligence cooperation.
It was not clear from the cable whether the drones were maintained by U.S. military forces in Colombia or given to that country’s armed forces as part of the multibillion-dollar military aid program there.
ScanEagles, which are four feet long with a 10-foot wingspan, are launched by a hydraulic catapult system and have no need for runways. Manufactured by Boeing, they were first deployed in 2005 by the U.S. Navy and Marines for intelligence-gathering in and around Iraq.
They have been used in Afghanistan by both U.S. and Canadian forces, and by the U.S. Navy in counter-piracy operations.
Wood wrote that the drones “have proven useful before, during, and after strikes against the FARC,” or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the main guerrilla group. He described them as in use by all branches of the Colombian military.
“When a UAV ‘pilot’ flew by chance over a truck unloading FARC fighters, and the [Colombian Air Force] happened to have a bomber available nearby,” he said, “an aerial assault was launched within 30 minutes.”
In another incident, a drone camera “caught two vehicles being loaded with coca,” and a helicopter gunship was dispatched to destroy them.
The cable described the drones’ ability to provide Colombian army forces with “realtime, bird’s eye” views of military assaults, and to track drug traffic along rivers for interdiction by the Colombian navy.