October 16, 2008

Satellites Help Brazil Curb Illegal Drug Activities

Under growing international pressure, Brazilian authorities are increasingly turning to intelligence and technology to help fight the country's illegal drug activities. 

Several weeks ago, Brazilian police arrested the pilot of a Colombian drug-smuggling plane minutes after it landed at a small clandestine airstrip in the vast Amazon rainforest. A high-tech spy plane circling thousands of feet above the earth had guided authorities to the plane, in which police found and confiscated 661 pounds of cocaine.

Authorities hope the bust will soon allow law enforcement to lock up an entire international drug gang.

"We can't be everywhere, the region is huge. So we need intelligence to focus our resources," Marcelo de Carvalho Lopes, who leads the Amazon Protection System (Sipam), told Reuters this week.

Authorities at Sipam, which was launched in 2003 at a cost of $1.4 billion, battle drug trafficking, deforestation and forest fires by examining aerial photography and satellite images.  Large numbers of climate sensors, high-speed Internet connections and satellite telephones are now distributed throughout the 2 million square miles of forest.

"The state needed more presence there," said Lopes.

At Sipam's headquarters in Brasilia, the walls of one large conference room are plastered with the latest images of the areas worst affected by logging. The images were obtained with infrared cameras from Air Force planes, and will be used as evidence in court against scores of illegal loggers.

Data from Brazil's environment ministry shows that just 8 percent of all fines for illegal logging are ever collected. The high-resolution images also provide authorities an opportunity to prevent deforestation before it happens since the paths the loggers plan to chop trees are shown.

"Sending people in by foot to take these pictures is costly, timely and dangerous -- these images are a potential breakthrough," Wougran Soares Galvao, Sipam's Operations Director, told Reuters.

By year's end, Brazil will have scanned 86 percent of the Amazon with high-resolution images, which analysts say will provide assistance for both law enforcement and conservation.

Ricardo Augusto Silverio dos Santos of Brazil's secret service agency, Abin, said enhanced air traffic control and a law enacted in 2004 that allows the air force to take down suspect planes have reduced drug trafficking by air.

However, drug gangs are now entering Colombia using boats instead of planes to smuggle cocaine bound for Brazil or Europe.

"They've switched their modus operandi," Silverio said, adding that Sipam is now installing new surveillance equipment along major waterways and preparing counter-narcotics operations to combat the problem.

Nonetheless, resources and fast action coordination on intelligence remain lacking.  And although deforestation has fallen by more than half during the past four years, an area nearly the size of Connecticut is still destroyed every year.

"We don't have the men, vehicles, or even roads to get to where we need to be," Lopes said.

Private and foreign funding for Amazon conservation efforts are on the rise and should aid with enforcement.  Last month, Norway pledged a $1 billion dollar donation over 7 years in an unprecedented vote of confidence of Brazil.

Lopes said other countries, which may not be able to justify such hefty donations amid the global financial crisis, could still help.  For instance, Germany and Canada are among the few countries that have satellite images from radars that can penetrate clouds.

"If they really want to help the Amazon, they could make their satellite images available," Lopes said.


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