No Man's Air: Military And Police Drones Proliferate In Latin America

A drone flies over protests in Mexico City on Sep. 1, 2013
A drone flies over protests in Mexico City on Sep. 1, 2013
Rodrigo Lara Serrano

SANTIAGO – Latin America has a long and checkered history of technological innovation spreading with the confusion and occasional lawlessness of the Wild West. This is particularly troubling now with the spread of drone technology, as more and more of the unmanned craft are hovering around the region with no regulations to speak of.

In the United States, seven states this year enacted new laws to regulate the use of remote-control planes and mini-helicopter, while 36 other states are debating the issue.

Last October the Mexico City Public Security Secretariat - its police authority - began testing little cuadricopters intended to supervise street demonstrations. In June, O Globo, a Brazilian daily, used the contraptions to do some overhead “reporting” of protests in Sao Paulo. In February the Tigre municipality in Argentina outside Buenos Aires began using the devices to track and film criminal acts and natural disasters. Indeed, the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Police is developing its own drone,the Metrocopter!

These drones are small, weighing as little as two kilograms, and able to fly autonomously up to two kilometers for 30 minutes. They are the baby siblings of those used by the armed forces. In January, Brazil invested some $19 million on just two Israeli drones able to photograph a face from up to nine kilometers above-the-ground. It already had three from the same firm, one of which was the subject of a complaint from Paraguay for presumed covert activity over the disputed Itaipu dam.

In November, the 10 member states of the regional association UNASUR agreed to join together to build a world-class drone, able to fly 13 hours uninterrupted. Brazil is meanwhile building its own drones, as are Chile, Colombia, Peru and Argentina.

Civilian control is a must

Brazil is also building a drone in partnership with Argentina, whose 2014 budget assigns $35 million to just one drone model, in the National UAV Project-Project SARA. There are at least seven more prototypes, one of a high-speed model for testing anti-aircraft defenses.

Clearly there will be some air traffic congestion soon, especially in frontier areas. While the UN's Civil Aviation authority ICAO has said it is working on a framework of inter-state norms governing drones, there is a more basic problem. Santiago Canton of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights was the first to raise the alarm last November, while addressing the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Drone proliferation he said was empowering certain military sectors, which instead require "absolute civilian control," given Latin America's history. The absence of regulatory legislation he said, was increasing the "intimidating effect this can have on society, given its use in all kinds of circumstances, including public demonstrations."

The legal vacuum can moreover mean a police-military escalation: Should Latin America leave states to decide for themselves whether or not drones will carry weapon systems such as missiles? Who will be responsible for the effects of shots fired accidentally by these crafts in urban areas or during social conflicts?

In Texas, for example, the law established 19 legitimate uses of drones, but outlawed their use in taking pictures of persons or properties not involved in criminal activity. It's one thing if a Brazilian drone is capturing one of Neymar's goals at the Confederations Cup, but would be quite another if the police use one to spray tear gas at a political demonstration.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!