Now Laredo Wants a Drone Too

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Last month, Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar joined Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas for a demonstration of a ShadowHawk drone at a Laredo fire training facility.

The drone, a 50 pound helicopter about seven feet long — operated remotely from a laptop and steered by a joystick — whirred above the elected officials. The unmanned helicopter can fly up to 50 miles per hour and hover at 700 feet taking video or infrared pictures.

This would be the same drone purchased by the Montgomery County sheriff’s office last year. The Conroe-based defense contractor Vanguard Defense Industries is making a push to sell the drones domestically to law enforcement.

The demonstration was at the behest of the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Martin Cuellar is the brother of Congressman Cuellar. And Congressman Cuellar is a big proponent of drones. He’s co-chair of the House Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, formed in 2009 by Republican California Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon.

The mission of the caucus according to their web site is to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.”

Not surprisingly, the drone industry is a big fan of the caucus. The industry’s trade association the AUVSI worked with the caucus last year to hold a drone fair and it sponsored a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Action Day on Capitol Hill.

The drone industry also generously supports the caucus members. During the 2010 election cycle drone-related PACs donated more than $1.7 million to caucus members. From 2011 to 2012, Congressman Cuellar received more than $30,000 in campaign contributions by defense companies working on drones.

For a cash-strapped law enforcement agency, Vanguard’s drone copter doesn’t come cheap. It costs at least $340,000, according to the company’s CEO. Luckily, the federal government in many cases is willing to pick up the tab through homeland security funding. The feds paid for Montgomery County’s copter drone last year, which cost around $300,000.

Local sheriffs can apply for funding under a program called Operation Stonegarden which has the amorphous purpose of “enhancing coordination among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to secure the borders with Mexico, Canada, and international waters,” according to the DHS web site.

After the drone copter demonstration Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas said his city was interested in the technology but the feds would have to pick up the tab. “If they are committing to making the border safer…then show us the money,” Salinas told Laredo’s Pro8 News.

Not to worry Congressman Cuellar said. “I think we can. There is some money called Operation Stonegarden that the sheriff’s office gets and the mayor and I are talking about approaching the sheriff to ask whether maybe the city and county could use this money together jointly.”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.