A Mexican drone crashed in El Paso's Lower Valley, sparking a federal investigation and raising questions about why the aircraft was in U.S. airspace.
"We are collecting data about the crash. We don't have the aircraft because it was returned to its owner," said Keith Holloway, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates aircraft crashes in the United States and in other countries that request its help.
Though the U.S. is known to use drones to patrol the border, this is thought to be the first time a Mexican drone has been reported operating at the border.
The drone crashed Tuesday on Craddock Avenue, near the intersection with Yarbrough Drive.
Holloway said the aircraft that crossed into U.S. airspace is a mini orbiter unmanned aerial vehicle developed by the Aeronautics Defense System.
According to the developer's website, the aircraft is designed for use in military and Homeland Security missions. It can be used for reconnaissance missions, low-intensity conflicts and urban warfare.
Officials at the Mexican consul's office in El Paso did not call back to provide details about what kind of operation the drone was a part of, how long drones have been in use or which government agency controlled it.
Vincent Perez, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, said, "Our office was notified about the incident today (Thursday) after we asked Department of Homeland Security about the press reports on it. We don't have all the details expect to receive more information."
Reyes, D-Texas, former chief of the U.S. Border Patrol-El Paso sector, is chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
Perez said Reyes' staff was certain that drones were not part of the equipment earmarked for Mexico under the Merida Initiative.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command would not comment on the incident and referred all questions to the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection.
In a statement, Jenny L. Burke, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said, "We responded to a concerned citizen's call and recovered a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which belonged to the Government of Mexico (GOM).
"We worked collaboratively with the GOM and other U.S. federal agencies to coordinate the return of the UAV to (Mexico)."
Neither Department of Homeland Security or U.S. Border Patrol officials would say why the drone was returned to Mexico before investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board could inspect it.
Border Patrol Agent Ramiro Cordero said only that numerous agencies were involved in returning the drone to Mexico on Wednesday.
"It is an ongoing investigation," Cordero said.
U.S. federal officials also would not disclose the exact address on Craddock Avenue where the crash occurred.
Depending on the exact point of impact, the drone might have been from a third of a mile to a half-mile inside the United States.
The El Paso Police Department was the first agency to confirm that the Mexican drone had crashed in the city.
"I was told that it crashed in somebody's backyard, and that no one was injured. I was paged at 6:28 p.m. on Tuesday, so it happened shortly before that," El Paso police Detective Mike Baranyay said. "We were told it was not a police matter."
Baranyay said the U.S. Border Patrol secured the aircraft, which was transported back to one of the international bridges, where it was returned to Mexican officials.
According to www.defenseindustrydaily.com in 2009, Aeronautics Defense Systems of Yavneh, Israel, planned to sell Mexico's federal police over $22 million worth of its Skystar 300 surveillance aerostats and small Orbiter UAVs.
"Mexico doesn't make the headlines very often, but the country faces what counter-terrorist analyst John Robb has called a growing 'open source insurgency' of narco-traffickers and some leftist groups," the website said.
An online site that sells weapons (www.israeli-weapons.com/weapons/aircraft/uav/orbiter/Orbiter.html) advertises the same kind of mini UAV that crashed in the Lower Valley.
John Concha, spokesman for the Fire Department, said emergency units were not sent to the crash site because no one was injured.
The crash occurred after sunset on Tuesday in the yard of a house on Craddock Drive near Yarbrough and the César Chávez Border Highway.
The homes in the former agricultural area sit on lots of one to two acres that contain large fields and tall trees.
The neighborhood is separated from Mexico by the Rio Grande, floodlights, the 15- to 18-foot tall rust-colored border fence, a chain-link fence, a line of poles with surveillance cameras and the César Chávez Border Highway.
Border Patrol agents are a part of daily life in the neighborhood, but residents said they were surprised to hear about the crash of a Mexican drone.
A U.S. helicopter flew along the Rio Grande on Thursday afternoon while Bobby Garcia, accompanied by his two dogs, did yard work at his home on Craddock Avenue near Yarbrough Drive.
"The helicopter will roam around once in a while, but nothing like that," Garcia said after hearing about the drone incident.
Garcia lives less than a half-mile from the border.
"I feel pretty safe, I guess," Garcia said. "If anybody crosses over, they are just making tracks to get farther north. They don't stop here."