The purity of drones

Israel’s drone export business to Latin America is leading Colombia to replicate the economic model.

Ehud Barak's selling point during his Colombian visit was that "the technical intelligence provided by drones helps reduce the failure rate seen in operations in which only human intelligence is relied upon" [AFP]

In April of this year, Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak staged a visit to Bogota, where his activities included marketing Israeli drones to the Colombian state. 

According to a subsequent report in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, one of Barak’s selling points was that the technical intelligence provided by drones helps reduce the failure rate seen in operations in which only human intelligence is relied upon. 

Given the recent history of drone operations in various parts of the world, it would seem that there’s not exactly an inverse relationship between use of said aircraft and the incidence of failure, at least insofar as rampant slaughter of civilians qualifies as failure. 

Conveniently, however, the state of Israel has tended to look less frowningly on certain types of civilian slaughter, converting the practice into evidence of the “purity of arms” – a military code of ethics upheld in projects ranging from the ethnic cleansing of Palestine to the extermination of nearly 20,000 persons in Lebanon in 1982 to the drone-assisted massacre at the United Nations compound in Qana in 1996. 

The Israelites of Latin America 

That Barak’s efforts on behalf of Israel’s arms industry may have constituted little more than an exercise in preaching to the converted is suggested by a January 2012 article in Israel National News noting that “Colombia has been identified as the mysterious buyer of Israeli Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) systems worth $50 million”. 

 Drone designers seek non-violent uses

According to the article, the Haifa-based Elbit Systems originally publicised a drone sale to an unspecified Latin American country whose identity was only later outed. The reason for the secrecy is not entirely clear given the following enraptured pronouncement on Israeli television by Colombian Defence Minister-turned-President Juan Manuel Santos: “We’ve even been accused of being the Israelites [sic] of Latin America, which personally makes me feel really proud.” 

Indeed, both nations have proved particularly adept at disguising state terrorism as wars on terror, in which civilian life existing in contravention of elite and ideological territorial interests becomes necessary collateral damage. Furthermore, Carlos Castano, the founder of modern Colombian paramilitarism – a phenomenon that is to thank for many of the obstacles to civilian existence – reported copying the paramilitary concept from the Israelis. 

As I wrote in a previous op-ed for Al Jazeera, Santos’ exuberant pursuit of honourary Israelite status facilitated the penetration of Colombia by Israeli private security firm Global CST, founded by the former head of the Operations Directorate of the Israeli military. The company’s presence occasioned a concerned missive – released by WikiLeaks – from the US embassy in Bogota in 2009: 

“We and the GOC [government of Colombia] learned that Global CST had no Latin American experience and that its proposals seem designed more to support Israeli equipment and services sales than to meet in-country needs.” 

Leaving aside the fact that the US is hardly one to talk, it appears that Israel’s attempts to dominate the drone market might also fit into the category of self-centred economics. Following the identification of Colombia as the enigmatic Latin American drone purchaser in January, UPI reported that the purchase was meant to aid “security patrols on [the] troubled border with Venezuela”. 

It is not clear, however, what a $50 million investment in technical intelligence will do for border security when, for example, I was able to cross unregistered from Colombia to Venezuela and back at a prominent border checkpoint in 2009 after failing to locate any Colombian official with a passport stamp. 

The argument that drones can be of use in combating narco-trafficking meanwhile fails to account for foreign and domestic interests behind the proliferation of drugs and for recent news headlines like this one from the Guardian: “Western banks ‘reaping billions from Colombian cocaine trade’“. 

Exporting insecurity 

Colombia is not the only Latin American recipient of Israeli UAVs (nor is Israel the only merchant). El Espectador lists Brazil, Chile and Ecuador among past Israeli clients in the region. 

“When violent states dedicate themselves to the business of exporting ‘security’, the end product is likely to be the exact opposite.”

The Colombian military’s reported plans for an arsenal of drones is especially worrisome, though, in light of its legacy vis-a-vis the nation’s citizenry. Consider the following excerpt from the Guardian in 2011: 

“Up to 3,000 Colombian civilians have been killed by government forces and paramilitaries in a phenomenon known as ‘false positives’, where innocent people are extrajudicially executed and presented as guerrillas to army chiefs who reward results, no matter how they are achieved.

Sometimes the army present the dead with a weapon or a grenade, and often, after killing them, their assassins dress them in Farc [anti-government Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] uniforms. The soldiers and their hitmen can be cavalier – presenting the bullet-riddled corpses in unused boots too big for their feet, their fatigues fresh and unmarked.” 

As of last month, meanwhile, it appears that Colombia has taken efforts to replicate the Israeli model in Latin America to the next level with the launch of an indigenous drone industry

Following Ehud Barak’s April descent upon Colombia, a dispatch on the website of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) noted that, “[a]ccording to Colombian Minister of Defence Juan Carlos Pinzon, Colombia wants to position itself as a ‘major exporter of security’ in the region, and believes that Israel can help it to achieve these goals”. 

Of course, when violent states dedicate themselves to the business of exporting “security”, the end product is likely to be the exact opposite. 

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.