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New Drone Radar Reveals Border Patrol ‘Gotaways’ in High Numbers

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Posted on Apr 11, 2013
Diablo Azul (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Andrew Becker, Center for Investigative Reporting

This report was funded by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The U.S. Border Patrol has caught a fraction of the border crossers spotted by a sophisticated sensor mounted on unmanned spy aircraft and flown over remote stretches of desert, casting doubts on claims that the area is more secure than ever, according to documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The border crossers were spotted with a new, all-seeing radar system developed for use in the Afghanistan War and patrolling above the U.S.-Mexico border in parts of Arizona since March 2012. The system can reveal every man, woman and child under its gaze from a height of about 25,000 feet.

Between October and December, records show, the remotely operated aircraft detected 7,333 border crossers during its Arizona missions. Border Patrol agents, however, reported 410 apprehensions during that time, according to an internal agency report. The sensor was credited with providing surveillance that led to 52 arrests and 15,135 pounds of seized marijuana.

Dubbed VADER – for Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar – and conjuring images of the “Star Wars” villain, the sensor can cover a wide swath of land and follow movement as it happens. The system, which is on loan from the U.S. Army, is used to identify roadside bombers in war zones.

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Customs and Border Protection officials, who aim to buy two systems for the agency, have touted the system’s effectiveness and testified before Congress that it is changing the Border Patrol’s long-term strategy on securing the border. Yet its unique abilities could shine an uncomfortable light on the agency’s ability to effectively patrol the border.

The radar system is providing the Border Patrol with an important snapshot to judge what it calls “situational awareness” – what’s actually happening at the border. But it has left the agency grappling to measure its own success and define “security.”

Another report that highlights what the radar system detected from October to mid-January underscores the agency’s struggle to measure results and shows conflicting numbers. Border Patrol agents apprehended 1,874 crossers that the sensor identified, but 1,962 more escaped capture.

Using the system, remote operators can track vehicles and people on foot in real time and distinguish humans from animals. The technology allows the aircraft to fly above bad weather or dust storms that otherwise might ground it, while it sends signals to ground stations that display the human targets as moving dots or black-and-white images.

The internal Customs and Border Protection intelligence report outlines several limitations of the system, including the obvious – it can’t tell the difference between a U.S. citizen and noncitizen. On-the-ground video and other sensors are sometimes needed to confirm these so-called “nefarious tracks.”

And simply identifying someone crossing the border is just the first step. On the ground, Border Patrol agents often are not available to respond because of rugged terrain or other assignments. As a result, thousands of people have slipped through. At the Border Patrol, they’re known as “gotaways.”

In one week in January, for instance, the sensor detected 355 “dismounts,” or on-foot movement, on the U.S. side of the border in Arizona. Border Patrol agents caught 125 of those, about 35 percent, while an additional 141 people evaded apprehension and 87 more turned back south to Mexico. Two were unaccounted for. The sensor detections led to more than 1,100 pounds of seized drugs.

VADER “has proven to be an extremely effective system in countering threats and supporting the ground commander’s mission in theater,” Boomer Rizzo, a Department of the Army civilian who helps run the radar program, said in an email. “This sensor can track smaller and slower moving targets that traditional radar systems are not able to effectively operate against.”

As for whether the system’s effectiveness has highlighted failures with the nation’s border security, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Friel said the technology is still being tested and its accounting is being refined.

The initial approach used to count who is caught and who evades arrest after VADER detections “was flawed and reflected an incomplete picture of border enforcement,” he said. “There is no silver bullet in border technology.”


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