The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock reported this morning that the Obama administration is going to to employ drones more for surveillance and less for lethal operations in the future.

If you’re a man between the ages of 16-49 in Yemen and Pakistan or an American concerned about innocent people being killed in your name, this, if true, could be welcome news (unless, of course, the drones will supply “actionable” intelligence for other sorts of practically indiscriminate airstrikes).

But one point discussed in the piece will not ingratiate the Obama administration to our southern neighbors, if the general quoted on the matter gets his wish:

In South and Central America, U.S. military commanders have long pined for drones to aid counternarcotics operations. “Surveillance drones could really help us out and really take the heat and wear and tear off of some of our manned aviation assets,” Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, said in March.

One possible destination for more U.S. drones is Colombia. Last year, Colombian armed forces killed 32 “high-value narco-terrorists” after the U.S. military helped pinpoint the targets’ whereabouts with manned surveillance aircraft and other equipment, according to Jose A. Ruiz, a Southern Command spokesman.

The expansion of American involvement in counter-narcotics operations south of the border can only escalate tensions between the U.S. and left-leaning leaders in Latin America – the latter already being furious at the former for the Evo Morales plane debacle and Samantha Power’s comments about Venezuela.

It also could lead to more fatal incidents in Latin America with American fingerprints on them — like U.S.-linked extrajudicial executions in Honduras. As Whitlock pointed out, intelligence provided by American drones has led to at least one high profile incident on the Turkey-Iraq frontier:

In December 2011, Turkish jets bombed a caravan of suspected PKK fighters crossing from Iraq into Turkey, killing 34 people. The victims were smugglers, however, not terrorists — a blunder that ignited protests across Turkey.

The Wall Street Journal reported last year that American drone operators had alerted the Turkish military after a Predator spotted the suspicious caravan. Rather than ask for a closer look, Turkish officials waved off the drone and launched the attack soon after, the paper said. Turkey’s leaders denied the report, saying they decided to attack based on their own intelligence.

While these mistakes can, of course, be committed by manned surveillance aircraft, employing unmanned aircraft makes riskier operations more attractive — perhaps why, according to one military study, drone strikes “caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter aircraft.”

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.