Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 18: Narcodrones on the Border and Beyond

Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 18: Narcodrones on the Border and Beyond

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker

Drones (also called unmanned aerial vehicles or systems—UAVs or UAS) are becoming more common along the US-Mexico border as Mexican cartel assets. While typically considered a tool for smuggling [1], they are increasingly seen as having application for other purposes including espionage, surveillance, and as weapons. 

A recent opinion piece at Fox News Latino in February 2016 underscores the emerging potentials of aerial drones on our Southern frontier:

There are legions of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, and they do not belong to the United States. They are owned and operated by Mexican drug cartels, and there’s nothing we can currently do to stop them.

The proliferation of small, cheap UAVs (aka drones) has raised a litany of security concerns, from interference with commercial aviation to possible delivery systems for weapons. Along the U.S. southern border, the Mexican cartels are operating drones as intelligence gathering tools. [2]

The author, Nelson Balido a border security analyst, suggests that drones are replacing halcones (lookouts and spies) as intelligence gathers along the border.  Balido observed that cartels are also using drones for smuggling and intelligence gathering.  He notes that the cartels use GPS (Global Positioning System) countermeasures against US aerial drones. He further suggests that the “fleet of drones” weakens US border security efforts and forging an immediate response is essential to countering the proliferation of this threat. [3] In this strategic note, we assess the current threats and emerging potentials posed by drug cartels use of drones along the US-Mexico border and other frontiers.  We also consider recent incidents and analyses to consider potentials involving use for criminal enterprise and as weapons systems for violent non-state actors (VNSAs) such as gangs, cartels, terrorists, and private armies (criminal soldiers).

Recent Incidents (Tactical Indicators)

In April 2015 border authorities thwarted an attempt to smuggle 30 pounds of heroin from Baja to Calexico. [4] In a second incident, earlier in January of that same year, a drone carrying about 6 pounds of methamphetamine (cristal) crashed in a parking lot near the San Ysidro border crossing near San Diego. [5] The narcodrone found by the Tijuana Municipal Police near the San Ysidro crossing was a commercially available Chinese model known as “Spreading Wings 900.”  The model is typically used for photography. [6]

Photo of “Spreading Wings 900” Drone (Dron) recovered by Tijuana Municipal Police on 20 January 2015 near San Ysidro border crossing in the Zona del Río, Source: Secretaria de Seguridad Pública Municipal Tijuana, Mexico [For Public Distribution]

Other criminal use of drones has included smuggling contraband into prisons [7] and locating and stealing illicit cannabis grows [8].  As Robert J. Bunker noted in Mexican Cartel Tactical Note # 21 (2014), Mexican drug cartels have been using narcodrones since at least 2010. [9]

Bunker assessed the situation at that time as follows:

The Mexican cartels have engaged in a three phase evolutionary process of aerial narcotics trafficking from conventional aircraft (both converted airliners and light craft) to ultralight aircraft to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Along the U.S. Southern border, this process has been prompted by increased U.S. homeland security activities. UAV use is not unique to the Mexican cartels with such criminal activity noted in January 2009, with drones going to Elmley Prison in Sheerness, Kent, United Kingdom (suspected narcotics), in February 2011 going in to a prison in the Tula region south of Moscow, Russia (heroin), in November 2011 coming across the Straight of Gibraltar into Spain (cannabis resin), throughout 2013 in the province of Quebec, Canada going to various prisons (illicit narcotics), in November 2013 going to the US prison in Calhoun, Georgia (cigarette smuggling), in March 2014 going to a Melbourne, Australia prison (illicit narcotics), and in May 2014 entering the Kaliningrad region, Russia (cigarette smuggling). Of concern are future Mexican cartel UAV evolutionary potentials related to a) sensor payload use for reconnaissance and surveillance functions and b) weapons payload use for small arms and IED attack capabilities. While there are no reports that either of these two evolutionary potentials have taken place, they would provide the Mexican cartels with additional tactical and operational level capabilities. [10]

While current statistics on cartel border drone use are unavailable, there were an estimated 150 UAV intrusions across the border from 2012 through 2014. [11]

Bunker’s concerns that aerial drones (UAVs) would be used by narco-cartels for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) (more recently shared by Badillo) are being realized.  Recent reports reinforce perceptions that narcodrones are being used for smuggling and ISR along the US-Mexico frontier.  Drug enforcement and border security officials aren’t concerned that drone use will become a major smuggling method since their payload is limited.  The real concern is the use of aerial drones (UAVs) as observation platforms for reconnaissance and surveillance.  The tactical intelligence gathered can be used to select routes for high value, high volume shipments, and for targeting border patrol agents and law enforcement officials. [12]

Counter-Drone Aspects of Mexico’s Drone Wars

In addition to ISR, the narcos are employing counter-drone electronic countermeasures to thwart US and Mexican security forces who use drones for interdiction. US drones (including Predators) routinely monitor the border and littoral spaces looking for drug shipments, illegal migration, human traffickers, and other illicit activity.  US drones are joined by UAVs operated by Mexico’s security services (Federal Police, SEDENA [army], SEMAR [navy], and CISEN [intelligence]) [13], local police, and the cartels, making the border’s airspace complex and contested.

Drug cartels have been spoofing (and hacking and jamming) US border security drones to divert the security surveillance, allowing uninterrupted cross-border incursions by the narcos. [14] Such EW [Electronic Warfare] activity focusing on the disruption of law enforcement C2 (command and control) and communications activities is a national evolution of earlier cartel operations going back to at least as early as 2008. [15]

It is not inconceivable that narcos could up-gun aerial drones (as well as land mobile unmanned vehicles and vessels) to include ballistic, laser, or explosive (IED) capabilities. [16] Recognizing the difficulty of countering small narcodrones with conventional means, some police agencies are training eagles and falcons to interdict small hostile drones. [17] Additionally, other agencies are looking into using their own drones with trailing nets, kinetic drone-on-drone kill options, and even officers with skeet shooting skills for special anti-drone assignment to address venue and special event protection needs.

Assessing the Narcodrone Threat

Drones have been used by narcos and gangs for smuggling and for intelligence (ISR). In addition, non-state actors (insurgent, criminal, corporate, and activists) have used drones to stage IED-type attacks and gather intelligence. These actors have included individuals (lone wolfs), terrorists and insurgents (including Hezbollah and Islamic State (IS), and organized crime groups (cartels) in Mexico and Colombia.  These unmanned drones have included UAVs—ranging from scale model jet aircraft through smaller hobbyist and gray area systems into specialized micro-infiltrator airframes—as well as unmanned semi-submersibles, and remotely-piloted ground vehicles. Corporations and activists are likely to use drones for security, publicity, and intelligence gathering purposes. [18] 

Security services are concerned about drones because they can be used for a range of purposes from smuggling high value commodities like heroin, Ecstasy, and methamphetamines to their ISR uses, to being used as weapons platforms for explosive, ballistic, laser, and biological weapons. [19]

The Remote Control Project at the Oxford Research Group conducted an assessment of commercially-available unmanned vehicles (drones) including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and unmanned marine vehicles (UMVs) (vessels including surface and submersible variants).  Their analysis also summarized the range of potential non-state actors using drones:  lone wolves, terrorist organizations, insurgent groups, organized crime groups, corporations, and activist groups.  They viewed the target sets as involving both domestic and international theatres and involving long-term static targets such as embassies and critical facilities (such as nuclear power stations), temporary static targets such as G7 summits or political events, and mobile targets such as convoys or vehicles.  They also emphasized the need to develop countermeasures for both attack and ISR operations.  Drone countermeasures (or C-UAS [Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems] in military parlance) range from regulatory measures restricting access and use through passive countermeasures (early warning, signal jamming and takeover) to active kinetic and laser defense systems. [20]  

The Open Briefing group also raised the possibility of Islamic State (IS) drone threats since IS has used aerial drones for battlefield intelligence in the Iraqi/Syrian theatre and has attempted to use both aerial and ground drones with explosive payloads (IEDs) to attack Kurdish forces. [21]

Pirates should also be added to the list of actors suggested above.  A recent Canadian assessment points out that criminals at sea (pirates or maritime non-state actors-MNSAs) are using GPS and bootleg submarines to operate despite the presence of naval forces.  These pirates, smugglers, or traffickers could use aerial drones to gain air capacity for surveillance and weapons delivery. [22]

Esther Kersley, in her essay “Drones, drugs and death,” observes that ‘remote control’ warfare, involving mass surveillance, drones, military special forces, and private military and security companies (PMSCs) is on the rise. [23] Kersey notes that both armed and reconnaissance drones are employed by states (notably the US) and that drones are increasingly being found in the hands of transnational criminal organizations (i.e. drug cartels). Thus, remote warfare technology is being used by cartels to smuggle contraband and “to fight each other, dominate criminal markets, control local populations and deliver lethal action against their enemies.” [24]

Vanda Felbab-Brown in February 2016 has now contributed her analysis. She posits that criminal groups (gangs and cartels) are embracing remote lethal action to counter state law enforcement and security measures.  The remote fighting capabilities suggested by Felbab-Brown include surveillance cameras and drones.  Drones are beginning to be used not only for transporting illicit goods but also, more importantly, as weapons:

The new radical remote-warfare development on the horizon is for criminal groups to start using drones and other remote platforms not merely to smuggle and distribute contraband, as they are starting to do already, but to deliver lethal action against their enemies–whether government officials, law enforcement forces, or rival crime groups. [25]

Of course, countermeasures and drone vs. drone combat are a likely consequence of gangsters and mafias embracing remote warfare tactics.

Drones (now aerial platforms and soon land and water-borne variants) are changing the shape of non-state conflict. Drug, crime, and gang wars are likely to include the use of drones as both contraband transport and ISR platforms in the near-term.  As the technology becomes more mature and accessible, logistical models and lethal variants (kinetic, explosive, and laser) are likely to be exploited as effective force sustainment and weapons systems in both urban and rural settings.

Conclusion: Criminal Drones

Drones were initially considered a high technology, high expense capability available to national forces. They were also viewed as a component of the more recognized cruise missile threat. As technology matured, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS), and do-it-yourself (DIY) capabilities have emerged which have created a stand-alone threat category. These systems are readily available to narcos, terrorists, and insurgents.  Individual drones, and swarms of drone packs are probable features of narcotrafficking      and crime wars. These robotic actors are likely to involve airborne, land, and waterborne (riverine, littoral, and maritime) variants on all sides of the confrontation (military, police and security services, the media, and criminal, terrorist, and insurgent actors).  

The plazas, colonias, favelas, and megacities of the drug war zone will become the operational space of future state vs. non-state conflict (embracing local high intensity crime through criminal insurgency).  The use of drones is no longer merely a tactical issue; it has strategic and operational potentials for states and their competitors. This threat will become especially acute when larger packs and swarms of semi-autonomous and autonomous armed drones—eventually custom printed to maximize specific mission requirements—are employed utilizing network C2 architectures that allow for collective decision making protocols and strategies to be implemented. 

End Notes

[1]  “Los narcodrones de la frontera,” Telemundo Local, 3 February 2015 at http://www.telemundo51.com/noticias/Los-narcodrones-de-la-frontera-narcotrafico-nogales-arizona-mexico-eeuu-290686221.html

[2] Nelson Balido, “Nelson Balido: Mexican cartels patrol border with drones – and U.S. has no response,” Fox News Latino, 19 February 2016 at http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/opinion/2016/02/19/nelson-balido-mexican-cartels-patrol-border-with-drones-and-us-has-no-response/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Associated Press, “Heroin smugglers turn to drones,” The Telegraph, 13 August 2015 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11800080/Heroin-smugglers-turn-to-drones.html; and Sarah Berger, “Mexico Drug Trafficking: Drone Carries 28 Pounds of Heroin Across Border To US,” International Business Times, 13 August 2015 at http://www.ibtimes.com/mexico-drug-trafficking-drone-carries-28-pounds-heroin-across-border-us-2051941.

[5] Arturo Salinas y Manuel Ocaño, “FOTOGALERÍA: Cae dron que transportaba droga en Tijuana,’ Excelsior, 22 January 2015 at http://www.excelsior.com.mx/nacional/2015/01/22/1003922; Rob Crilly, “Meth-laden drone crashes near US-Mexico border,” The Telegraph, 22 January 2015 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/mexico/11361825/Metha-drone-crashes-near-Mexican-border.html; Rafa Fernandez De Castro, “Meth from Heaven? Narco drone falls out of Tijuana sky,’ Fusion, 22 January 2015 at http://fusion.net/story/39975/meth-from-heaven-narco-drone-falls-out-of-tijuana-sky/.

[6] Said Betanzos, “Cayó ‘narcodrón’ cerca de garita,” El Mexicano, 22 January 2015 at http://www.el-mexicano.com.mx/informacion/noticias/1/3/estatal/2015/01/22/819263/cayo-narcodron-cerca-de-garita; and “SSPM REPORTA FORMAS DE TRASIEGO,” Secretaría de Seguridad Pública Tijuana” at https://www.facebook.com/policiatijuana/posts/829170020509500.

[7] David Francis, “Want to Smuggle Drugs into Prison? Buy a Drone” Foreign Policy, 4 August 2015 at http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/08/04/want-to-smuggle-drugs-into-prison-buy-a-drone/; and Justin Ling, “Someone Used a Drone to Deliver a Handgun Into a Notorious Canadian Prison,” Vice, 14 December 2015 at https://news.vice.com/article/someone-used-a-drone-to-deliver-a-handgun-into-a-notorious-canadian-prison.

[8] Drones equipped with cameras, heat sensors, and Wi-Fi have been employed by gangsters in the UK to case and then raid marijuana farms. Matt Whitlock, ‘English Gangs are now using Drones to Locate and Steal From, Weed Farms,” The Source, 24 April 2014 at http://thesource.com/2014/04/24/english-gangs-are-now-using-drones-to-locate-and-steal-from-weed-farms/.

[9] Robert J. Bunker, “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #21: Cartel Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs),” Small Wars Journal, 1 August 2014 at  http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/mexican-cartel-tactical-note-21.

[10] Ibid. Citations are available at the original article.

[11] Ibid.  Also see “'Narcodrones', la nueva técnica de los cárteles mexicanos,” El Comercio, 16 July 2014 at http://elcomercio.pe/mundo/latinoamerica/narcodrones-nueva-tecnica-carteles-mexicanos-noticia-1743520; and Doris Gómora, “Fabrican narcos sus propios drones, alerta la DEA,” El Universal, 9 July 2014 at http://archivo.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion-mexico/2014/carteles-fabrican-narcodrones-trasiego-eu-1022274.html.

[12] See Camilo Mejia Giraldo, “Mexico’s Cartels Building Custom-Made Narco Drones: DEA,” InSight Crime, 11 July 2014 at http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/mexico-s-cartels-building-custom-made-narco-drones-dea; and Andrew O’Reilly, “DEA: Narco-drones not major smuggling concern, but could help set up attacks on agents,” Fox News Latino, 22 January 2015 at http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2015/01/22/dea-narco-drones-not-major-smuggling-concern-but-could-help-set-up-attacks-on/.

[13] Jan-Albert Hootsen, “Inside Mexico’s Drone Wars ,” Voacative, 6  January 2014 at http://www.vocativ.com/world/mexico-world/inside-mexicos-drone-wars/.

[14] See Waqas, “US Border Patrol Drones Hacked by Drug Cartels,” Hackread, 3 January 2016 at https://www.hackread.com/us-border-patrol-drones-hacked-by-drug-cartels/; Matthew H. Fleming, et al, “Unmanned Systems in Homeland Security,” Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute and Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2015 at http://csis.org/files/attachments/151216_Unmanned_Systems.pdf; and Patrick Tucker, “DHS: Drug Traffickers Are Spoofing Border Drones,” Defense One, 17 December 2015 at http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2015/12/DHS-Drug-Traffickers-Spoofing-Border-Drones/124613/.

[15] While not all the LE communications disruption taking place is intentional, a specific component of it is. See Diana Washington Valdez, “Cartels, Mexican army blamed for interference.” El Paso Times. 18 August 2008. For a mirror of this article see http://news.wexico.com/technology/00aug2008/mexinterference.htm. Also see The Soufan Group, TSG IntelBrief: Mexican Drug Cartels in the Cyber Age. 13 November 2012 at http://soufangroup.com/tsg-intelbrief-mexican-drug-cartels-in-the-cyber-age/ and Patrick Tucker, “DHS: Drug Traffickers Are Spoofing Border Drones.” Defense One. 17 December 2015 at http://www.govexec.com/defense/2015/12/homeland-security-drug-traffickers-are-spoofing-border-drones/124617/.

[16] For a discussion of IED drones see Robert J. Bunker, “Virtual Martyrs: Jihadists, Oculus Rift, and IED Drones,” TRENDS Research & Advisory, 14 December 2014 at http://trendsinstitution.org/?p=762 .

[17] Anthony Cuthbertson, “Police Train Eagles to Take Out Rogue Drones,” Newsweek, 2 February 2016 at http://www.newsweek.com/police-train-eagles-take-out-rogue-drones-422030drones; and Patrick Barkham, “Drone-fighting eagles – a reminder of nature’s superpowers,” The Guardian, 8 February 2016 at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/08/drone-fighting-eagles.

[18] Chris Abbott, Matthew Clarke, Steve Hathorn, and Scott Hickie, “An Assessment of Known Drone Use by Non-State Actors,” ISN, ETH Zurich, 26 January 2016 at http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?id=195707.

[19] Dane Schiller, “Be very afraid of drones, warns expert,” Houston Chronicle (Chron), 26 January 2016 at http://blog.chron.com/narcoconfidential/2015/01/be-very-afraid-of-drones-warns-expert/; and Dean Klovens, “UAVs: The future of terrorist weaponry?” Global Risks Insight, 1 February 2016 at http://globalriskinsights.com/2016/02/uavs-the-future-of-terrorist-weaponry/?utm_content=buffer72736&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer.

[20] Chris Abbott, Matthew Clarke, Steve Hathorn, and Scott Hickie, Hostile Drones:  The Hostile Use of Drones by Non-State Actors Against British Targets, Remote Control Project, Oxford Research Group, and Open Briefing, January 2016 at http://remotecontrolproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Hostile-use-of-drones-report_open-briefing_16.pdf.

[21] Chris Abbott and Matthew Clarke, “How to respond to the threat from hostile drones in the UK,” Open Briefing, 14 March 2016 at http://www.openbriefing.org/thinktank/publications/how-to-respond-to-the-threat-from-hostile-drones-in-the-uk/.

[22] Jordan Pearson, “Drones Will Forever Change How Pirates Operate on the High Seas,” Motherboard, 11 February 2016 at http://motherboard.vice.com/read/drones-will-forever-change-how-pirates-operate-on-the-high-seas-canada.

[23] Esther Kersley, “Drones, drugs and death,” openDemocracy, 17 March 2016 at https://www.opendemocracy.net/drugpolicy/esther-kersley/drones-drugs-and-death.  The interplay between private military actors and criminals discussed in Kersey has also been addressed by the current authors, see especially John P. Sullivan, “Terrorism, Crime and Private Armies,” Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement, Volume 11, Issue 2-3, 2002, pp. 239-253; and John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Drug Cartels, Street Gangs, and Warlords,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, Volume 13, Issue 2, 2002, pp. 40-53.

[24] Ibid (Kersley).  Kersley’s essay is also republished as Esther Kersley, “New Tactics, Old Strategy: Remote Warfare and the War on Drugs,” Oxford Research Group, 18 March 2016 at http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/publications/briefing_papers_and_reports/new_tactics_old_strategy_remote_warfare_and_war_drugs.

[25] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Drugs and Drones: The Criminal Empire Strikes Back,” Remote Control Project Blog, 24 February 2016 at http://remotecontrolprojectblog.org/2016/02/24/drugs-and-drones-the-crime-empire-strikes-back/.

Additional Reading:

Chris Abbott, Matthew Clarke, Steve Hathorn, and Scott Hickie, Hostile Drones:  The Hostile Use of Drones by Non-State Actors Against British Targets, Remote Control Project, Oxford Research Group, and Open Briefing, January 2016 at http://remotecontrolproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Hostile-use-of-drones-report_open-briefing_16.pdf

Robert J. Bunker, Terrorist and Insurgent Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Use, Potentials, and Military Implications. Carlisle Barracks: US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, August 2015 at http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=1287.

Marguerite Cawley, “Drone Use in Latin America: Dangers and Opportunities,” InSight Crime, 18 April 2014 at http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/drone-use-in-latin-america-dangers-and-opportunities.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Drugs and Drones: The Criminal Empire Strikes Back,” Remote Control Project Blog, 24 February 2016 at http://remotecontrolprojectblog.org/2016/02/24/drugs-and-drones-the-crime-empire-strikes-back/

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