Small Wars Journal

Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #21

Sat, 08/02/2014 - 12:41am

Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #21: Cartel Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

Robert J. Bunker

Key Information:  Camilo Mejia Giraldo, “Mexico’s Cartels Building Custom-Made Narco Drones: DEA.” Insight Crime. 11 July 2014,

Mexico’s drug cartels are reportedly commissioning custom-made drones to transport narcotics across the US border, illustrating the continual development of innovative new technologies and methods used to traffic drugs.

Cartels have begun hiring local workers from companies in Mexico to develop custom drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), suited to their needs, according to an unnamed Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) source consulted by El Universal.

Since 2012, the DEA has registered around 150 narco drones crossing the border, transporting in total approximately two tons of cocaine and other drugs. This amounts to an average of roughly 13 kilos per load.

US and Mexican authorities have identified Queretaro, Guadalajara, Nuevo Leon and Mexico City as the drone production points, where cartels pay professionals two to three times their normal salary for this custom technology.

While cartels used to use foreign-made drones, the new reliance on home-grown technology and construction is more cost-effective -- the method is cheaper than the construction of cross-border tunnels or the use of semi-submersible vessels, according to El Universal's report.

InSight Crime Analysis

These new developments represent the latest in a long list of technologies and drug transport methods developed by cartels… 

Mexican criminal organizations have been using UAVs since at least 2010, but the relatively small amount of drugs transported per trip on the drones registered by the DEA helps explain why the cartels want to develop larger, specially tailored UAVs. As drone technology worldwide becomes increasingly accessible and cost effective, commissioning custom-made drones in Mexico is the next logical step for cartels.

Key Information:  Doris Gómora, “Fabrican narcos sus propios drones, alerta la DEA.” El Universal. 9 de Julio de 2014,

Cárteles del narcotráfico están fabricando en México sus propias aeronaves no tripuladas o drones para traficar droga hacia los Estados Unidos, para lo cual están utilizando a trabajadores de empresas que tienen ensambladoras de drones en territorio mexicano, según información de la Agencia Antidrogas de Estados Unidos (DEA).

Narcodrones han sido utilizados para traficar droga en la frontera con Estados Unidos desde el 2011, parte de los cuales han sido asegurados por miembros de diferentes agencias tras ser derribados al cruzar hacia territorio estadounidense…

Who:  Mexican cartels; specific cartels not stated. Key hiring cities for domestic drone production personnel—Mexico City, Querétaro, Guadalajara, and Nuevo León—suggest Sinaloan and Los Zetas cartel involvement at a minimum. 

What:  Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) utilized to transport illicit narcotics across the border from Mexico to the United States. Initially foreign produced, particularly Israeli, and then domestic drones since 2014. Since 2012, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has documented about 150 of these confirmed UAV intrusions.

When:  UAV use since at least 2010 to the present.

Where:  Along the Mexican and U.S. border.

Why:  For transport of illicit narcotics; profit motive, overcome U.S. border defenses.

Analysis:  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),1 in February 2011 going in to a prison in the Tula region south of Moscow, Russia (heroin),2 in November 2011 coming across the Straight of Gibraltar into Spain (cannabis resin),3 throughout 2013 in the province of Quebec, Canada going to various prisons (illicit narcotics),4 in November 2013 going to the US prison in Calhoun, Georgia (cigarette smuggling),5 in March 2014 going to a Melbourne, Australia prison (illicit narcotics),6 and in May 2014 entering the Kaliningrad region, Russia (cigarette smuggling).7 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.

Significance:  Armed Drone Potentials, Cartel Technology, Narcotics Trafficking, Sensor Drone Potentials


1. Daily Mail Reporter, “Remote control toy helicopter ‘used to fly drugs into prison’.” Daily Mail. 12 January 2009,

2. Voice of Russia, “Heroin by helicopter.” 1 February 2011,

3. Tom Worden, “Plane smart! Smugglers use remote-controlled aircraft to fly in cannabis.” Daily Mail. 21 November 2011,

4. See Michael Aubry, “Drone sets off security alert at Hull jail.” Ottawa Sun. 26 November 2013, and Brian Anderson, “How Drones Help Smuggle Drugs Into Prison.” Motherboard. 10 March 2014,

5. WALB News 10, “Crooks get creative to smuggle contraband.” 22 & 27 November 2013,

6. Brian Anderson, “How Drones Help Smuggle Drugs Into Prison.” Motherboard. 10 March 2014, and Nick Evershed, “Drone used in attempt to smuggle drugs into Melbourne prison, say police.” The Guardian. 10 March 2014,

7. ITAR-TASS News Agency, “Lithuanian drone detained in Russia last week was used for cigarette smuggling.” 14 May 2014,

Further Reading

Marguerite Cawley, “Drone Use in Latin America: Dangers and Opportunities.” Insight Crime. 18 April 2014,

Categories: El Centro