Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #46: Weaponized Drones (Aerial Improvised Explosive Devices) Deployed by CJNG in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán
Robert J. Bunker, John P. Sullivan, David A. Kuhn, and Alma Keshavarz
The Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) is alleged to have attempted to deploy two weaponsized drones with C4 or similar type explosives against their rivals—the Carteles Unidos (United Cartels)—in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán on 25 July 2020. The weaponized drones were not successfully deployed and were found by a local self-defense group (autodefensas) known as El grupo de autodefensa en Tepalcatepec.
Key Information: “Jalisco cartel adopts new tactic: drones armed with C-4 explosive.” Mexico News Daily. 18 August 2020, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/jalisco-cartel-adopts-new-tactic-drones-armed-with-c-4-explosive/:
A citizens’ militia group in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán, reports finding two drones inside an armored car that cartel hitmen had abandoned after an attempted raid on the city, which borders Jalisco, on July 25.
The C4 was packed with ball bearings to serve as shrapnel in Tupperware-like containers that were equipped with a remote detonation system and duct-taped to the drones, militia members explained. The drones were found in a cardboard box that was soaked in blood, indicating to the militia members that whoever was intending to fly the drones was injured before they could be launched.
The new tactic represents the cartel’s determination to wrest control of the western Michoacán municipality from the self-defense militia and an evolution of their air attack strategy. In April, the cartel used small planes to drop explosives on Tepalcatepec, but after authorities increased aerial surveillance in the region the CJNG opted for drones, which cannot be detected on radar.
Key Information: “CJNG ataca con narcodrones; autodefensas de Tepalcatepec detallan su uso.” Noticeros Televisa, 18 August 2020, https://noticieros.televisa.com/ultimas-noticias/cjng-ataca-con-narcodrones-autodefensas-de-tepalcatepec-michoacan-detallan-su-uso/:
El Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación está usando drones profesionales con C4, un explosivo de uso bélico.
“Esto es lo que dejo el Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, esta es la bomba C4 que iba conectada aquí, aquí en este aparato así, con esta cinta”, comentó un integrante del grupo de Autodefensa en Tepalcatepec, Michoacán.
El pasado 25 de julio, integrantes del Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación intentaron ingresar a Tepalcatepec donde se enfrentaron al grupo de Autodefensa de ese municipio michoacano que colinda con Jalisco.
Después de la refriega, los hombres armados de Tepalcatepec, observaron que los sicarios del cártel jalisco abandonaron dos drones y cuatro explosivos C4 en el lugar del enfrentamiento.
Key Information: “CJNG usa drones con explosivos C4 y balines como forma de ataque.” El Universal. 18 August 2020, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/cjng-usa-drones-con-explosivos-c4-y-balines-como-forma-de-ataque:
En entrevista, las autodefensas de la región, revelaron que tras un enfrentamiento hallaron dos drones y cuatro explosivos, por lo cual pudieron ver como la organización criminal fabrica estas nuevas armas, solo fijando las bombas con cinta metálica de uso industrial al dron.
Y es que esta región de tierra caliente, colindante con Jalisco, se ha visto asolada por la organización criminal desde el 25 julio pasado, fecha en que han atacado a las autodefensas de Tepalcatepec para tratar de hacerse con el control del territorio.
Cabe destacar que no es la primera vez que la organización criminal de “El Mencho” emplea esta táctica de ataque con vehículos aéreos, pues la Fiscalía General de la República (FGR) inició en mayo pasado una carpeta de investigación contra el CJNG.por delito de delincuencia organizada con la finalidad de cometer terrorismo.
En mayo la FGR encontró, en un cateo en el estado de Puebla, varios drones y explosivo c4, mismos que presuntamente también fueron usados en Guanajuato por el Cártel.
Key Information: “Drones con explosivos, la más reciente arma del CJNG para atacar desde el aire.” Infobae. 14 August 2020, https://www.infobae.com/america/mexico/2020/08/15/drones-con-explosivos-la-mas-reciente-arma-del-cjng-para-atacar-desde-el-aire/:
El Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) encontró un nuevo uso a los drones: un arma para atacar a quienes considera sus enemigos…
…Los drones son cargados con el explosivo C4 y balines de metal, conectados a un sistema de detonación a distancia.
Para los autodefensas de la localidad, los integrantes del Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación aún no saben utilizar con precisión los artefactos.
Los autodefensas buscan la manera de detectar los drones que sobrevuelan el cielo de esta comunidad ubicada en la zona conocida como Tierra Caliente, y a 250 kilómetros de Morelia, Michoacán.
Key Information: “Qué hay detrás de los supuestos drones con explosivos “asegurados” en Tepalcatepec.” Noventa Grados (90o). 14 August 2020, http://www.noventagrados.com.mx/seguridad/que-hay-detras-de-los-supuestos-drones-con-explosivos-asegurados-en-tepalcatepec.htm:
En redes sociales, miembros de la asociación delictiva Carteles Unidos han asegurado tener en su poder drones con explosivos que atribuyen al Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación; este anuncio -dado hace más de un mes y que en las últimas horas ha cobrado relevancia-, parece ser una pieza más de la campaña de desinformación que realizan los grupos criminales con el afán de debilitar a sus enemigos, causando consternación entre la población…
Fue luego del ataque del CJNG a la comunidad La Estanzuela, Tepalcatepec, la noche del 25 de junio, que se conoció la primera publicación en redes sociales en la que simpatizantes de Carteles Unidos (asociación integrada por Los Viagras, Cártel de Tepalcatepec, Caballeros Templarios y Blancos de Troya) aseguraban haber localizado un dron con explosivos…
En la publicación se mostraba un dron modelo DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, con un precio de alrededor de 40 mil pesos. En él se hallaba atada con cinta metálica, una supuesta carga explosiva de C4, en lo que parece una caja rectangular color café.
En la fotografía también se apreciaba un rollo de cinta metálica.
Key Information: Juan Manuel González, “Con drones, CJNG busca erradicar a rivales en Tierra Caliente.” La Silla Rota. 12 August 2020, https://lasillarota.com/estados/con-drones-cjng-busca-erradicar-a-rivales-en-tierra-caliente-michoacan-drones-cjng-mencho/423494:
Con fusiles de asalto, Barrett calibre .50 y lanzagranadas, el CJNG ataca desde tierra y, también, utiliza drones cargados con explosivosC4 para buscar asesinar a la población. La vigilancia armada de las comunidades en esa parte colindante con Jalisco también acotó la irrupción del crimen organizado a sus pueblos.
La Silla Rota dio a conocer, apenas en abril pasado, que el CJNG perpetraba nuevos ataques contra los pobladores de Tepalcatepec. Esos atentados eran desde avionetas, provenientes de sus centros de operaciones en Jalisco, desde donde lanzaban artefactos cargados con explosivo C4, cuyo acceso es exclusivo de fuerzas militares.
Who: Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG).
What: Weaponized commercial off-the-shelf drone; Mavic 2 Zoom, allegedly armed with C4 (or similar type) explosives and ball bearing type projectiles in plastic containers, attached to the drones with duct tape. Two drones and four IED payloads in plastic containers were recovered.
When: Saturday, 25 July 2020.
Where: Tepalcatepec, Michoacán (Tierra Caliente), Mexico.
Why: Aerial assault; attempted attack on rival cartel.
A weaponized drone—a Mavic 2 Zoom quadcopter with an IED payload—was found in a field, full of stacks of tires, by El grupo de autodefensa en Tepalcatepec forces (a self-defense group) on 25 July 2020 in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán. This resulted in their then discovering an abandoned armored vehicle, belonging to Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) operatives. Within that vehicle a bloody cardboard box containing another Mavic 2 Zoom quadcopter and three more ‘IED payloads’ consisting of clear plastic boxes containing apparent C4 explosives and industrial ball bearings (functioning as shrapnel) was secured.Apparently, the CJNG operators were involved in an attack upon competing Carteles Unidos (United Cartels) personnel but (it is surmised) were forced to abandon their mission due to their injuries and/or vehicular inoperability.
Video imagery of the captured weaponized drones and IED components can be found at:
- Juan Manuel Gonzalez, “Con drones, CJNG busca erradicar a rivales en Tierra Caliente.” La Silla. 12 August 2020, https://lasillarota.com/estados/con-drones-cjng-busca-erradicar-a-rivales-en-tierra-caliente-michoacan-drones-cjng-mencho/423494 [38 Second Video].
- “VIDEO | CJNG se moderniza y usa drones para realizar sus ataques.” La Voz de Michoacán. 19 August 2020, https://www.lavozdemichoacan.com.mx/pais/cjng-se-moderniza-y-usa-drones-para-realizar-sus-ataques/ [39 Second Video].
The video imagery shows:
- One gray Mavic 2 Zoom quadcopter (Drone 1) with an ‘IED payload’ (Payload 1) found in a clear plastic container with a clear top/blue locking latches duct taped to it.
- Another gray Mavic 2 Zoom quadcopter (Drone 2) with no ‘IED payload’ attached.
- A second ‘IED payload’ (Payload 2) found in a clear top/blue locking handles clear plastic container.
- Two additional ‘IED payloads’ (Payload 3 & 4) found in clear plastic containers with green lids and sealed with masking and/or electrical tape.
Specific information pertaining to the IED design and effects related to drone weaponization—along with imagery forensics—follows.
There are four (4) plastic containers that were discovered at the site. One of these containers is shown in Image 1 with the payload duct taped to the drone’s fuselage. Two of the containers discovered (with the blue locking latches) are general storage containers.
Image 1: Payload attached to drone’s fuselage. (Source: La Silla Rota, used with permission. See Note 8.)
Image 2: Payload containers. (Source: La Silla Rota, used with permission. See Note 8.)
These particular containers have an internal volume of 0.3-liters (10.14 oz.). The two remaining containers with the green lids are unknown generic, sealable food containers that possess a slightly lower internal volume. The payloads of all of the containers, where visible, contain industrial ball bearings of at least two sizes and a plastic explosive that has been identified in a number of reports and videos as Composition C-4. However, the color of the explosive within the containers does not match the color any of the normal C-4 composition grades in production (Image 3).
Image 3: Interior contents of payload containers. (Source: La Silla Rota, used with permission. See Note 8.)
The color does, however, match very closely to one of the grades of Semtex explosives. Composition C-4 is somewhat prevalent throughout Mexico and the auto-defense force providing the interview and information for the videos may have assumed that it was C4 rather than Semtex. The distinction, if accurate, however, may have far more value from an intelligence viewpoint as both Composition C-4 and several grades of Semtex have very similar performance characteristics.
The shrapnel that the bomb makers are using here are industrial ball bearings that have been salvaged from full bearing assemblies. Industrial ball bearings, by their nature, are constructed of precision, hardened steel. The bearings within the containers are of various sizes including 3/8-inch (9.52mm) and ½-inch (12.7mm). This package, coupled with the plastic explosive, would be devastating at a reasonably close range.
It appears that the plastic explosive may have been shaped (contoured) within the containers prior to inserting the ball bearings (Image 3).
The Mavic 2 Zoom Drone shown in Image 1 has the payload package secured to it via duct tape. This creates a relatively simple, remote operated, attack system. The effective deployment range of this drone for such an attack, however, is limited. While the Mavic 2 generally has a maximum flight range of approximately 12-miles (with no additional payload factored in), its maximum video transmission range about is 5-statute miles (8.04 km.) under relatively good weather conditions. The operators will require that video to locate their intended target. The payload package, if delivered as configured as in the first photograph, will also destroy the drone.
One of the containers shown in Image 4 has been cut away on one end with the lid still intact. This container also has black electrical tape wrapped over part of the lid and body. The ball bearings and plastic explosive appear to be packaged within a small gray retail type plastic bag. It has been placed within the container opening and is held there apparently by friction only. It is possible that the cartel was conducting experiments at this site in order to determine the feasibility of air dropping the payload by pitching the drone forward over a potential target; thus saving the drone for future attack.
Image 4: Possible experimental IED load. (Source: La Silla Rota, used with permission. See Note 8.)
The format of the container that is attached to the drone in Image 1 is again different that the other containers. It appears that the cartel operatives have stabilized (fixed) the ball bearing payload within the container using what appears to injectable foam that will harden enough to retain the contents in an exact position.
A few years ago, it would have been impossible for even a similar sized mil-spec drone to lift payloads of the approximate weight that we are seeing here, however, now they have become readily available to virtually anyone. The skill curve that exists in order to successfully maneuver modern drones and, in particular the Mavic 2 series, is extremely low. On-board microprocessors and embedded flight control sensors do the majority of the work. Drones possessing this type of technology are already in a special asymmetric threat category that requires special defense measures and early interdiction to be successful.
Criminal cartels in Mexico—in particular the CJNG—are continuing to experiment with the weaponization of commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) drones to target their adversaries. In this incident, the attack was interrupted or aborted. It can be expected that cartels will continue their experiments with weaponized aerial drones and that this experimentation will yield more sophisticated devices and refined TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures). In recognition of the increasing cartel weaponized drone threat in Mexico, SEDENA (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional), per information obtained by El Universal in September 2020, now “plans to employ an anti-drone system costing 215.7 million pesos (about $9.6 million)” to monitor and disable such systems.
“CJNG ataca con narcodrones; autodefensas de Tepalcatepec detallan su uso.” Noticeros Televisa. 18 August 2020, https://noticieros.televisa.com/ultimas-noticias/cjng-ataca-con-narcodrones-autodefensas-de-tepalcatepec-michoacan-detallan-su-uso/.
“CJNG usa drones con explosivos C4 y balines como forma de ataque.” El Universal. 18 August 2020, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/cjng-usa-drones-con-explosivos-c4-y-balines-como-forma-de-ataque.
“Drones con explosivos, la más reciente arma del CJNG para atacar desde el aire.” Infobae. 14 August 2020, https://www.infobae.com/america/mexico/2020/08/15/drones-con-explosivos-la-mas-reciente-arma-del-cjng-para-atacar-desde-el-aire/.
Juan Manuel González, “Con drones, CJNG busca erradicar a rivales en Tierra Caliente.” La Silla Rota. 12 August 2020, https://lasillarota.com/estados/con-drones-cjng-busca-erradicar-a-rivales-en-tierra-caliente-michoacan-drones-cjng-mencho/423494.
“Jalisco cartel adopts new tactic: drones armed with C-4 explosive.” Mexico News Daily. 18 August 2020, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/jalisco-cartel-adopts-new-tactic-drones-armed-with-c-4-explosive/.
“Qué hay detrás de los supuestos drones con explosivos “asegurados” en Tepalcatepec.” Noventa Grados (90o). 14 August 2020, http://www.noventagrados.com.mx/seguridad/que-hay-detras-de-los-supuestos-drones-con-explosivos-asegurados-en-tepalcatepec.htm.
Significance: Aerial Improvised Explosive Devices (A-IED), Autodefensas, C4, Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), Carteles Unidos, Drones, Narcodrones, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Michoacán.
 In English, the title reads: “CJNG attacks with narcodrones; Tepalcatepec self-defense groups detail their use.” The text reads: “The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel) [CJNG] is using professional drones with C4, an explosive for military use.” … "’This is what the Jalisco New Generation Cartel left, this is the C4 bomb that was connected here, here in this device like this, with this tape,’ commented a member of the Self-Defense group in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán.” … “On July 25, members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel tried to enter Tepalcatepec where they confronted the Self-Defense group of that Michoacán municipality bordering Jalisco.” … “After the skirmish, the armed men of Tepalcatepec observed that the Jalisco cartel hitmen abandoned two drones and four C4 explosives at the scene of the confrontation.”
 In English, the title reads: “CJNG uses drones with C4 explosives and pellets as a form of attack.” The text reads: “In an interview, the region’s self-defense groups revealed that after a confrontation they found two drones and four explosives, so they could see how the criminal organization manufactures these new weapons, only fixing the bombs with metal tape for industrial use to the drone.” … “And it is this hot land region, adjacent to Jalisco, that has been ravaged by the criminal organization since last July 25, the date on which they attacked the self-defense groups in Tepalcatepec to try to gain control of the territory.” … “It should be noted that this is not the first time that “El Mencho’s criminal organization has used this aerial vehicle attack tactic, since the Fiscalía General de la República (Attorney General's Office) (FGR) opened an investigation against the CJNG last May for the offense of organized crime for the purpose of committing terrorism.” … “In May, the FGR found, in a search in the state of Puebla, several drones and a C4 explosive, which were allegedly also used in by the cartel in Guanajuato.”
 In English, the title reads: The text reads: “The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel) (CJNG) found a new use for drones: a weapon to attack those they consider their enemies” ... “The drones are loaded with the C4 explosive and metal pellets, connected to a remote detonation system.” … “For the town’s autodefensas [self-defense groups] the members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel still do not know how to use the devices with precision.” … “The self-defense groups are looking for a way to detect the drones that fly over the sky of this community located in the area known as Tierra Caliente, and 250 kilometers from Morelia, Michoacán.”
 In English the title reads: “What is behind the alleged drones with explosives ‘secured’ in Tepalcatepec.” The text reads: “In social networks, members of the criminal association Carteles Unidos have claimed to have in their possession drones with explosives that they attribute to the Jalisco Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel) [CJNG] This announcement – given more than a month ago and which has gained relevance in the last few hours – seems to be one more piece of the disinformation campaign carried out by criminal groups with the aim of weakening their enemies, causing consternation among the population.” … “It was after the CJNG attack on the La Estanzuela community, Tepalcatepec, on the night of June 25, that the first publication on social networks in which sympathizers of Carteles Unidos(an association made up of Los Viagras, Cártel [Tepalcatepec Cartel], Caballeros Templarios [Knights Templar] and the Blancos de Troy [Whites of Troy] claimed to have located a drone with explosives.” … “The publication showed a DJI Mavic 2 Zoom model drone [emphasis added], with a price of around 40 thousand pesos. In it was tied with metal tape, an alleged explosive charge of C4, in what appears to be a rectangular brown box.” … “The photograph also showed a roll of metal tape [duct tape]”.
 In English, the title reads: “With drones, CJNG seeks to eradicate rivals in Tierra Caliente.” The text reads: “With assault rifles, Barrett .50 caliber [rifles] and grenade launchers, the CJNG attacks from the ground and also uses drones loaded with C4 explosives seeking to assassinate the population. The armed community surveillance [autodefensas] in parts adjacent to Jalisco also limited the irruption of organized crime in their towns.” … “La Silla Rota announced, just last April, that the CJNG was carrying out new attacks against the inhabitants of Tepalcatepec. These attacks were from airplanes, coming from their operations centers in Jalisco, from where they were launching devices loaded with C4 explosives, exclusively available to military forces.”
 Juan Manuel González, “Con drones, CJNG busca erradicar a rivales en Tierra Caliente.” La Silla Rota. 12 August 2020, https://lasillarota.com/estados/con-drones-cjng-busca-erradicar-a-rivales-en-tierra-caliente-michoacan-drones-cjng-mencho/423494. This reporting is in variance with one of the incident images which shows both drones in the field together.
 Ibid. No imagery of the bloody cardboard box in which one of the drones and three of the IED payloads were discovered—or for that matter the abandoned armored SUV—exists.
 Special thanks to Jorge Ramos, Director Editorial, Grupo La Silla Rota for providing permission in an email on 22 August 2020 for us to utilize their video imagery of the incident for this tactical note and follow on analytical and book products.
 Katie Jones, “How Organized Crime Networks Are Using Drones to Their Advantage.” InSight Crime. 29 September 2020, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/drones-narcotrafficking-surveillance/. See also, Noé Cruz Serrano, “Ejército va por sistema antidrones de cárteles del narco.” El Universal. 21 September 2020, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/ejercito-va-por-sistema-antidrones-de-carteles-del-narco
For Additional Reading
David A. Kuhn, Robert J. Bunker, and John P. Sullivan, “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #45: Drones and Explosives Seized in Puebla, Mexico by Fiscalía General de la República (FGR) and Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (SEDENA).” Small Wars Journal. 21 May 2020.
John P. Sullivan, Robert J. Bunker and David A. Kuhn, “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #38: Armed Drone Targets the Baja California Public Safety Secretary’s Residence in Tecate, Mexico.” Small Wars Journal. 6 August 2018.
Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #35: Weaponized Drone/UAV/UAS Seized in Valtierrilla, Guanajuato with Remote Detonation IED (‘Papa Bomba’) Payload.” Small Wars Journal. 23 November 2017.
John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 18: Narcodrones on the Border and Beyond.” Small Wars Journal. 28 March 2016,
Robert J. Bunker, “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #21: Cartel Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).” Small Wars Journal. 1 August 2014.
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