World News

Mexico buys drones, may use for marijuana search

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico has purchased Israeli-made unmanned drone aircraft, the government said, which may be used for spotting remote drug fields as officials fight powerful cartels.

Mexico’s defense ministry said it bought an unspecified number of Hermes 450 drones last year from Israel’s Elbit Systems Ltd for $23.25 million, according to a filing seen by Reuters on Tuesday.

The defense ministry declined to say how it would use the drones.

But Javier Oliva, a security analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the military was likely using the remote-controlled drones, which can fly for 20 hours and are equipped with cameras, to locate marijuana and opium in the northwestern states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua.

“These are areas that are very difficult for troops to reach,” Oliva said, adding that the military had started to use the planes over the past five or six months.

Mexico is the main transit route for South American cocaine into the United States but is also a major marijuana and heroin producer. President Felipe Calderon launched a major military-backed assault on drug cartels upon taking office in late 2006 with millions of dollars of aid from Washington.

More than 28,000 people in Mexico have died in Calderon’s drug war but the president said on Tuesday he was sticking to his strategy even though more violence is likely.

The defense ministry made the drones’ purchase public under Mexico’s freedom of information rules after a request from leading Mexican newspaper La Jornada.

Reporting by Pablo Garibian and Robin Emmott; Editing by Jerry Norton