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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was intoning something about economic renewal, flanked by his wife and a handful of high officials, in a country gripped by poverty, starvation, and shortages. Then, in a moment broadcast live on television that has since gone viral, his wife’s face changed. For an instant she seemed to duck as she reached for the official next to her; Maduro glanced up with apparent concern. The camera panned to the National Guardsmen in formation on the street before him as dozens suddenly started running. According to the government and witnesses, they had seen explosions in the sky.

By the government’s account, those explosions were part of an attempted assassination by drone—which if correct would be the first instance of such an attack targeting a head of state, and a possible portent of things to come.

The United States pioneered military drones for surveillance and then missile strikes in Afghanistan nearly two decades ago; only a handful of states now have those capabilities. But small, commercially available drones of the kind Venezuela says were used in the attempt have proliferated widely among private actors in recent years. They do not require billions of dollars to procure or runways to take off. They can be used for filming or for delivering commercial products or for humanitarian aid. They can just as easily carry explosives.

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