Small Wars Journal

Narco-Drones: A New Way to Transport Drugs

Wed, 07/05/2017 - 1:34am

Narco-Drones: A New Way to Transport Drugs  

Brenda Fiegel

“A narcotrafficking technique first used in Mexico now expands to other countries in Central and South America.”

In mid-November, Colombian Police seized 130 kilograms of cocaine and a drone used by narcotraffickers in the Bahía Solano sector of Chocó, allegedly used to send cocaine shipments to Panama. This information is of interest as it is the first instance in which drones have been identified as a viable trafficking method in the country, according to Colombian news source La Prensa.[i]

The drones being utilized can transport up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of cocaine and travel up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) in a single trip. Authorities also indicated that this method was likely developed by the Clan del Golfo (formerly known as Clan Úsuga) which is the largest criminal gang in Colombia dedicated to drug trafficking.[ii]

The use of this tactic by the Clan del Golfo is in no way surprising as they are known for their diverse trafficking methods, which range from using illegal migrants to carry small shipments through jungle regions into Panama, to submarines that can travel all the way to the United States.[iii]

However, it is significant as it demonstrates the capabilities of cartels in adjusting their trafficking methods to changing operational conditions meaning that no matter what obstacles are placed in front of them, drug trafficking organizations will overcome virtually any barrier if humanly possible to move their product and generate profits. This means that authorities must be vigilant in anticipating trafficking changes because as soon as one method is blocked or temporarily unusable, another will quickly be found to replace it.

Mexican Tactics

While news regarding drug cartels using drones in Colombia is a new phenomenon, this tactic has been used by Mexican cartels since around 2010, and it is likely that Mexican success motivated the Clan del Golfo to test the same method in their territory. In fact, by 2012, drone use along the border was highly prevalent as evidenced by the United States’ interception of 150 drones carrying an estimated two metric tons of drugs; primarily marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.[iv]

In fact, Mexican cartels have become so vested in drone use that they are now using Mexican-based companies to produce them in cities including the Federal District, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Querétaro and Tijuana. This is interesting because prior to 2011, virtually all drones owned and operated by cartels were produced abroad; primarily in Israel and China.

The new Mexican-made drones are very different from the ones used for personal use as they can supposedly transport anywhere from 60-100 kilograms (132-220 lbs.) of drugs in a single trip, and it is likely that engineers will continue working to make trafficking drones more efficient in terms of weight they can carry, distance they can travel, and methods to deter their detection.[v]

In terms of current use, drones used to transport drugs usually operate during the night, and never even land on U.S. soil.  They simply drop the shipment and return to Mexico.

The Perfect Drug Mule

It can be surmised that drones are gaining popularity in both Mexico and Colombia as they represent a nearly perfect drug mule in the sense that they involve less risk to drug trafficking organizations and their employees who represent possible risks to any cartel if the arrested individual provides authorities regarding TTPs, routes, shipment time tables, ect. Additionally, drones, in comparison to their human counterparts cost significantly less as a drug mule can earn as much as $10,000 for successful delivery of a single shipment.  However, when compared to other non-human forms of transport, the cost of drones is simply insignificant when comparing them to the cost of building drug tunnels (Mexican tactic), semi-submersibles (universal DTO tactic), and submarines (Colombian tactic).

Drones only apparent flaws are that they are not capable of traveling long distances or carrying large-scale shipments at this point. Regardless, it is likely that drone use by drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia will increase; especially if producers work on developing more agile models that can carry added weight and fly longer distances at lower altitudes.

Other aspects that make drones appealing to cartels is that their use is multi-faceted and does not necessarily pertain to just drug trafficking activities. For example, drones can conduct surveillance operations, perform intelligence gathering, and even move money or valuable messages short distances without being detected.  In fact, drone use for counter-surveillance purposes was reported in June 2017 in Australia where an unidentified DTO utilized drones to surveil police activity in an attempt to protect a $30,000,000 cocaine shipment that originated in Panama and was likely of Colombian origin.  This is not to say that the Colombians were responsible for informing their contacts in Australia to use drones for counter-surveillance, but the possibility certainly exists based on what is known about drone use by South American cartels.[vi]

The Future of Drones in Mexico and South America

When comparing borders, Mexico has a definite advantage in terms of drone use strictly for drug trafficking purposes based on the following three reasons. First, the Southwest border is vast and highly difficult to monitor. Second, in many cases drones are moving from one populated area, directly into another, which helps camouflage their activity. Third, drones departing from Mexico to the U.S. are travelling much shorter distances than those departing from Colombia to Panama, meaning there is less risk of detection and malfunction of the equipment.

As for drones in South America, border security issues have always existed between Panama and Colombia because their shared geography is a hot spot for drug, human, and weapons trafficking, as well as money laundering. More specifically, the so-called “Darién Gap” (classified by authorities from both countries as a lawless jungle region along the two borders) serves as an epicenter of illegal activity because it is completely under the control of drug trafficking organizations the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

As neighbors, Panama and Colombia have historically worked together to combat the aforementioned issues, but are now looking to further this cooperation. As part of their commitment to improve border security, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stated that they plan to install two security bases in La Olla and La Balsa, in addition to merging two other security outposts in Alto Limón and La Unión.

All of these bases are located in the Darién Region, and will be staffed with both Colombian and Panamanian security forces. They are expected to be operational at some point in 2017. As indicated by President Santos, this collaboration is expected to have a positive impact in decreasing all types of illegal activity in the region, and will possibly thwart the new imposition of drone use in the area before it gains the same popularity it has in Mexico.

End Notes

[i] “Narcotraficantes envian cocaina a Panama con drones: Policia de Colombia (Colombian Drug Traffickers Send Cocaine to Panama with Drones)”, La Prensa, 17 November 2016.

[ii] “Descubren un ‘narcodron’ en Colombia; enviaba cocaína a Panamá
(Authorities Discover Narco-Drone in Colombia with Cocaine Shipment Headed to Panama)”,  Excelsior, 15 November 2016.

[iii] “Policía revela 'el hormigueo', nueva modalidad del Clan Úsuga para sacar droga del país (Police Reveal New Micro-Trafficking Scheme Utilized by Clan Úsuga to Move Drugs from Colombia to Panama)”,  Noticias CMI, 10 October 2016.Úsuga-para-sacar-droga-del-pais

[iv] “Narco envía droga a EU… en drones (Drug Traffickers Use Drones to Ship Drugs to the United States)”, Ejecentral, 17 August 2014.

[v] “Fabrican narcos sus propios drones, alerta la DEA (The DEA Reports that Narcos are Building their Own Drones)”, La Nacion, 09 June 2014.

[vi] “Drug ring 'used drones to counter police' before $30m haul seized in Melbourne: AFP”,, 30 June 2017.


About the Author(s)

Brenda Fiegel is a Senior Intelligence Analyst and the Editor of the Latin American Operational Environment Watch at the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. FMSO conducts open-source and foreign collaborative research, focusing on the foreign perspectives of understudied and unconsidered defense and security issues. Her specific research expertise includes “US/Mexico foreign relations,” “US/Mexico border security threats,” “Mexican and Central American violence/extremist groups to include drug cartels” and “Conflict resolution and peacekeeping in Mexico and Central America.” She has lectured on these topics in professional military education settings, at Interagency Security Conferences, at Customs and Border Patrol Facilities, and at academic forums.