By Kaiser David Konrad July 18, 2016 Great report. Congratulations to reporter. In 2006, after taking assuming Mexico’s presidency,Felipe Calderón took the bold initiative to declare war on the cartelscontrolling drug trafficking. The security forces were no longer able to fightthe cartels which were disputing control of an illegal market that is still movesbillions of dollars annually. The police force and resources were insufficientat that time for such a hard task. This created an image abroad that Mexico wasa type of “lawless land,” a view that did not necessarily reflect the realityof Mexico’s day-to-day life. In addition, drug trafficking had become a serious threatto national security. In searching for a solution to this problem, Calderóndecided to deploy military personnel on the streets to counter this powerfulthreat, the tentacles of which reached into the structures of the state itself. President Calderón trusted the training, professionalismand capabilities of the Army’s, Navy’s and Air Force’s military personnel toengage in a task that turned out to be difficult, but that is still ongoing todaywith positive results. Currently, Mexico has the highest number of militarypersonnel involved in public security andurban combat operations in the world, with 35,000 soldiers engaged in realoperations and deployed throughout key points in the national territory. They perform a wide range of missions, from streetpatrols on military convoys that carry standing armed combatants with riflesand machine guns atop the vehicles throughout the streets of major Mexicancities, to complex and full-range operations carried out with the FederalPolice and other public security agencies, using all military and technologicalresources available by land, sea and air. According to the local press, this strategy of fightingdrug-trafficking cartels directly may be accountable for the death of almost 30,000people, a great number of which had been involved directly or indirectly in criminalactivities. The others were victims of the violence caused by organized crime inthe confrontations between military and police forces. As a result, the government began to focus more onintelligence activities than on direct confrontation. In July of 2008, theNational Defense Secretariat (SEDENA) signed a contract to purchase a batch ofunmanned aerial systems (UAS). With this major acquisition, their activities begana new phase with the use of state-of-the-art technology, including specialequipment and sensors which provided not only tactical but also strategicbenefits. Their ability to collect data remotely, safely, accurately, and inreal time made them the main tools for the military personnel in this fight. As a result of focusing on intelligence activities, Mexicansalso avoided direct confrontations with drug traffickers, which was confirmed bythe drastic reduction in the number of deaths, compared to the beginning of theoperation. It was also reflected in the reduced numbers of soldiers andpolicemen who died or were injured in the line of duty and in the reduced costof these operations. The goal was not to kill the criminals, but to arrest themand take them to court, where they would stand trial and be sentenced to prisonas a result of the appropriate legal proceedings required in view of the crimescommitted, a clear example that justice was being served within Mexicanterritory. ESANT In May 2009, the Mexican Air Force (FAM, for its Spanishacronym) created a UAS squadron called ESANT for its Spanish acronym in asecret location within an isolated town in the state of Tlaxcala. Its operationalbase is at 8,300 feet above sea level, in the midst of a beautiful but scantily-inhabitedregion surrounded by La Malinche, Iztaccíhuatl, and Popocatépetl volcanoes. ESANT has a total force of 250 servicemen commanded by anAir Force Colonel (anonymous for security reasons), who has been an F-5 pilotand head of air defense. Ironically, only the squadron’s base is located in Tlaxcala,since operations there are restricted due to the high altitude, but thelocation offers the calm and safety required by the servicemen and theirfamilies, since they are often targeted by drug traffickers. Its structureincludes a chief of mission, three internal and two external pilots, threetechnicians specialized in aircraft maintenance, and three others inelectronics. The operations are always secret and frequently conductedin the state of Sinaloa, a region that is dominated by the cartel of the samename, which is considered the most powerful in the world and is headed by Joaquin“El Chapo” Guzmán. Operations are also conducted in the states of Durango,Chihuahua, Nuevo León, and along the border with the United States, dependingon the needs of the National Defense Secretariat. Aircraft can be flown anywhere in just 96 hours. Operatorsonly need to dismantle, encase, and mount them in one of the FAM’s Hercules C-130.To protect the safety of personnel and resources used, as well as ensuring operationalsecrecy, ESANTs only operate from military airports, which must be at a distanceof up to 250 kilometers from the area of operation. Each system comprises three aircraft and a universal groundcontrol station (UGCS), and can be set up for flight in less than two hours. Withinthe cockpit, each system works for up to four hours before being replaced byanother. There, in addition to piloting and managing the mission, the systemloads maps, programs regular and emergency routes and automatic take-off andlanding, and receives and monitors flight data and real-time video in order to transmittheir information to the leadership via satellite through a mobile unit. Intelligence Collection Mexico serves as a principal transit route to trafficSouth American cocaine to the United States, and it is also one of the topproducers of marijuana, opium, and its by-product, heroine, which is replacingthis type of Asian drug in the North American market. One of this unit’smissions is to find the crops, but that is the least complex of them. The mainmission is collecting intelligence by identifying, obtaining, and distributinginformation in real time and in day and night about fixed and moving targets inurban and rural areas. The most important element in the war against drugtrafficking is to arrest the leaders, as was recently done with “El Chapo.” Thatis why it is necessary to know the leaders, know where they live or hide andwith whom; what their habits are, who visits them, their personal liaisons, theplaces they visit with whom and when, in addition to their secret objectivesand other information of interest. It is very difficult and dangerous to try toinfiltrate police and military personnel into the cartels, as well as to keepcontinuous surveillance of these people and places. After all, any person inthe surrounding or nearby areas can be a potential snitch at the service of thecartel, and it is almost impossible to conduct a long-term secret operationwithout being discovered and captured. In that case, the punishment imposed bydrug traffickers is death. Therefore, air surveillance has become the mosteffective way of collecting information and producing intelligence during long periodsof time without jeopardizing the secrecy of the operation and the lives ofthose involved. These surveillance missions require prior intelligence,so it is essential to know what the target is and what they expect to discover.A surveillance mission must not be interrupted, so it must run 24/7 and can lastup to two months, which has already ocurred on many occasions. While anaircraft is over the target, another is on ground, but prepared to take off andreplace the first, and a third one is under maintenance and is being preparedfor the next substitution on the station. The intelligence provided by aircraft used by the FAM hasallowed the leadership to use the tactical units on the ground that can choosethe best moment to conduct their approach or carry out an arrest, therebyreducing the risks and the possibility of casualties and aviding confrontationby surprising the criminals during moments of weakness and lack of preparation.In this case, less service men are required. Operations that required hundredsof policemen and soldiers can now be conducted by smaller teams and/or expertor elite units whose actions are better directed, faster, and more secretive. During these operations, the UAS collects geo-referencedimages which are then sent in real time to ground troops equipped with remotevideo terminals. The use of this portable equipment provides the forcesinvolved with unique situational knowledge. Even though they are moving and at adistance of more than 15 kilometers from the aircraft, they are able to receiveaerial images, the targets’ coordinates, and follow any movement of interest within the perimeter while updating thetactical scenario and the position of all forces involved in real time. Forexample, they can receive information about the model and license plate of the criminals’vehicle, whether they are using any automatic weapons, and what kind. The CoMPASS IV −Compact Multi-Purpose Advanced StabilizedSystem− sensor incorporates a laser pointer that supports night vision goggles,frequently used to light up targets for the tactical units during night timeattacks. It transmits the images it produces to the Command and Control Centerof the Integrated Air Surveillance System in Mexico City, which consolidatesall communications and signals from the radar stations and the advanced airalert aircraft. This direct link with the Mexican capital enables multipleactors to participate and, if necessary, the civil and military authoritiesinvolved in the operation to monitor and interfer, thus allowing direct contactbetween the various echelons and ground troops. ESANT’s commander said, “The quality of intelligence thatis produced depends on the sensor employed.” In the case of the CoMPASS IV, itconducts surveillance during the day or night, at a distance of up to 13.5 kmsfrom the target. It is also equipped with a charge coupled device or CCD colorvideo camera and an additional thermal one, which facilitates carrying outoperations at night or at low luminosity levels. “During the day, the thermal camerahelps to detect persons inside a vehicle or to detect differences in temperature,brightness, emission levels, amongothers, of certain objects, for example a running engine,” he explained. Air reconnaissance is another responsibility and asecondary mission conducted by ESANT, the purpose of which is to performreconnaissance of specific areas with known coordinates when there is still notenough information about them. In these cases, an automatic flight is performedalong a predetermined route in an attempt to detect suspicious movements orillicit actions. At any sign of interest or suspicious activity, the aircraftbecomes controlled by the camera-guided mode, i.e., it is operated by theinternal pilots directly from the ground control station. Squadron pilots aretrained on how to detect signs of criminal activity, and more experiencedpilots can even detect the activity of informants, the so-called snitches, dueto the pattern of behavior they demonstrate and the way they make contact withtheir counterparts. Not all the squadron pilots are aviators, however, as thisis a requirement solely for the external pilots. The employment of these systems revolutionized the waythe military forces operate in such a unique and challenging scenario as theMexican one. They proved to be an essential means to obtain information andproduce fast, accurate, and safe intelligence via its sensors, which reduceshuman limitations caused by different performance level and fatigue factors, andallows the missions to continue indefinitely, until they are completed. A Cutting-Edge Unit ESANT also promotes innovation and technologicaldevelopment in the area of UAS through the close relationships with academic institutionsand the industrial base of Mexico’s defense. In view of the specialized knowledge acquired duringalmost a decade of operations in such a demanding and complex environment, everythingseems to indicate that Mexico is at the operational forefront in Latin America.Also, the FAM intends to create a flight school for UAS with a focus onexchanges with more countries in the south, such as Colombia, Chile, and Brazil. As I observed in Tlaxcala, serving at ESANT is a sourceof great pride in the FAM because this is a pioneer unit that employs the mostadvanced technology available to combat drug trafficking. It represents the Mexicanauthorities’ “eye that knows and sees everything,” and is gaining recognitionand importance with each coming day. More than a specialty, it is on the pathto earning its own wings and becoming an entire career within the FAM structure. The author is a journalist who specializes in national security topics.