The use of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) by criminal cartels has become a rising source of concern for law enforcement and national security agencies around the world. Cartels have been quick to adopt new technologies, such as drones, to further their criminal activities.
The use of drones by Narcos and cartels is particularly prevalent in Mexico along the U.S. Southern Border to smuggle drugs. However, this drug trafficking technique is expanding to other countries in Central and South America.
As drone technology advances, so will the sophistication of Cartel drone operations. To confront this growing threat, law enforcement and government organisations must be vigilant and adapt their strategies and procurement to address this evolving threat.
In this article, we discuss the use of drones by criminal groups. We will explore their different purposes, the actors involved, as well as the most relevant operations using drones. While criminal organisations use a variety of unmanned systems, this article focuses on aerial devices and not on underwater narco-drones, a type of narco-submarine.
2.0 History of the use of drones by Cartels
2.1 The Origins: Mexico
The use of UAVs by drug traffickers was first observed in Mexico in the 2010s. The history of drone use, however, has its origins in the rise of Mexican cartels in the 1980s. Private jets filled with cocaine or marijuana became famous during those years for flying over the Gulf of Mexico as they crossed the Mexican border, flying silently to sleepy airports, secret airstrips, and desolate places. Colombian cartels dominated the drug trade at the time, and Mexican criminal organisations were mainly middlemen moving the drugs into the United States.
As the “war on drugs” became more intense, US law enforcement acquired advanced radars capable of identifying the aircraft of “cocaine cowboys.” Colombian gangs disintegrated under intense pressure, and Mexican intermediaries formed their cartels, producing and trafficking heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. Although smugglers and their methods have evolved, the southern border remained the primary route for drug importation to the United States.
Mexican cartels are constantly adapting to evade US authorities, and they opted for the use of drones for their activities. Currently, these drones are mostly used to transport illegal substances across the border, for surveillance and in some cases for communication. More recently, cartels have also begun to use them as weapons, arming them with explosive devices that can be dropped on targets or as suicide bombers. Mexican cartels have been employing this strategy since around 2010. By 2012, the deployment of drones along the border was widespread. In 2014 the US intercepted 150 drones carrying almost two metric tonnes of contraband, primarily marijuana, cocaine, and heroin (source).
Drug-transporting drones frequently operate at night and never land on US soil. The most common tactic is to simply leave the goods behind and return to Mexico.
Mexican cartels have gotten so involved in the usage of drones that they now rely on Mexican enterprises to manufacture them in locations such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Querétaro, and Tijuana. Cartels have begun hiring local workers from companies in Mexico to develop custom drones, or UAVs, tailored to their needs (source). This is significant since, until 2011, practically all of the cartels’ drones were manufactured abroad, mostly in Israel and China.
Drones built in Mexico are not the same as those used for personal usage. They can transport 60 to 100 kilogrammes of drugs in a single trip. The last few years have seen limited but worrying changes in the size range, and the range of unmanned aircraft. While most of these drones are commercial and small in size, there is potential for larger drones to be produced or acquired. This gives them more payload capacity, altitude and range. Engineers are likely to continue striving to improve the efficiency of trafficking drones in terms of the weight they can carry, the distance they can go, and strategies to avoid detection.
This technique, however, is now spreading to other countries in Central and South America. The Colombian Gulf Clan (Clan de Golfo) was inspired by Mexico’s success and is trying to move drugs using drones.
In mid-November 2017, Colombian police discovered 130 kilogrammes of cocaine and a drone used by drug traffickers in the Bahía Solano sector of Chocó allegedly used to deliver cocaine shipments to Panama. According to authorities, the Clan del Golfo, Colombia’s largest criminal gang involved in drug trafficking, is suspected of developing this approach. The seizure was the first time that drones were discovered as a potential method of trafficking in Colombia. The drones could transport up to 10 kilogrammes of cocaine in a single trip and go up to 100 km.
3.0 Assessment of the Use of Drones
Drones are likely to become more popular in both Mexico and Colombia, as they represent a near-perfect drug mule. They present less of a risk to drug trafficking organisations and their personnel in the event of an arrest. This is because the drone operator is at a generally safe distance. It is therefore more difficult for the authorities to know where he is and to arrest him. This not only makes arrests more difficult but also prevents the detainee from disclosing operational information to the authorities.
Furthermore, when compared to human counterparts, drones are far less expensive. A drug mule, for example, may charge up to $10,000 for the successful delivery of a single consignment. However, when compared to other non-human modes of transportation, the expense of developing narco tunnels (Mexican tactics), semi-submersibles (universal DTO tactics) and submarines (Colombian tactics) is trivial.
Another factor that makes drones appealing to cartels is that they can be used for purposes other than drug trafficking. Drones, as we will see in the next section, can conduct surveillance operations, gather intelligence, transport drugs and money, and even be used as a weapon. Furthermore, they can communicate at close range without being noticed. For instance, in June 2017, an unidentified Drug Trafficking Organisation (DTO) used drones to observe police activity in an attempt to protect a $30,000,000 cocaine cargo from Panama, most likely of Colombian origin.
The main obvious limitation of these drones is that they cannot currently travel great distances or carry big amounts of stuff. In any case, the use of drones by Mexican and Colombian drug gangs is certain to rise, particularly if manufacturers focus on building agile models capable of carrying more weight and flying longer distances at lower altitudes.
Another disadvantage is their vulnerability to counter-UAV and counter-UAS systems. The malicious use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has resulted in the development of counter-unmanned air system (C-UAS) technology. The advancement of deep learning-based machine learning algorithms has also improved the accuracy of automatic tracking and detection of UAVs using commercial cameras. For instance, once a UAV has been spotted, it can be countered using either kinetic force (missiles, projectiles, or another UAV) or non-kinetic force (lasers, microwaves, or communications jamming).
Cartels use drones because of their versatility. The typical narco drone is small and cheap. Quadcopters are commercially available for a few hundred dollars. Nevertheless, some pilotless aerial smugglers are six- and eight-engine aircrafts (source).
As we have already seen and will expand on below, drones can perform the following tasks:
For cartels, the most common use of drones is smuggling drugs. According to US reports, upgraded commercial drones are now part of the Mexican drug cartels’ arsenal for smuggling drugs into the country. Criminal organisations have been using drones to transport drugs into the United States for some years. Cartels frequently attach the drugs to a drone and fly it across the border fence from Mexico or through desert areas to a pre-arranged destination in the United States.
The first ‘narco-drone’ seizure occurred in 2015 in Calexico, California, near the border with Mexico. It had carried a total of 28 pounds of heroin across the border on four occasions. In the five years that followed, Customs and Border Patrol headquarters recorded 170 such cases, including 84 in 2018 and 2019.
A Border Patrol agent stated in January 2021 that there had been “a slight spike” in drone activity in San Ysidro, a San Diego district bordering on the border with Mexico. Border Patrol agents retrieved a drone carrying two bags of methamphetamine after it crashed into the roof of a shop in San Ysidro in February. According to the agent, drones are usually for small deliveries, very low quantities and several times a week. While the amount a commercial drone can carry is very limited, the use of drones for this activity is a long-term endeavour. Despite there being no agreement on this, the US Department of Homeland Security suggests that up to a thousand drones could cross the border each week. Drones are also used to drop contraband into prisons as shown by the video shown before in Chile.
4.2 Surveillance and Reconnaissance
Another use of drones by criminals is in a surveillance/reconnaissance role to circumvent Mexican and US authorities. Drones are used for so-called “halconeo” (“falconing”), that is, espionage for drug smuggling activities. A “halcón” (“falcon”) in drug slang is an informant or a person who spends hours at night watching who is passing by, warning the authorities (source). With the use of drones, the surveillance action (“hawking”) is ultimately translated into a report of information for decision-making. In this sense, drones provide audiovisual data that currently would only be available through an aircraft.
Drug traffickers often use drones to map routes and detect vulnerabilities along the US border. Some of the intercepted drones carry out surveillance activities to monitor the passage of undocumented migrants or to establish the position of the border patrol to wait for the right moment to pass narcotics.
The cartels’ smuggling and narcotics reconnaissance drones also operate in night-time conditions, using thermal cameras (forward-facing infrared) for visual navigation/flight, intelligence, and surveillance. Some of them also provide three-dimensional thermal imagery. This allows drone operators to determine the height and complexity of the terrain when crossing the border.
The Colombian militia National Liberation Army (ELN), dissidents of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Mexican cartels in Colombia already use them to gather intelligence on local security forces, watch drug shipments or monitor drug trafficking routes. Drones therefore multiply the capacity for efficiency and effectiveness in achieving its illicit ends.
While the drones used by cartels are more limited than military drones, they are useful for carrying light payloads. In particular, small drones can deliver messages and even mobile phones. This is why drones may also fulfil a communication function.
The use of drones for this purpose is easily applicable to the following event. In 2001, in Brazil, the then PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital) leader Idemir “Sombra” Carlos Ambrósio, planned simultaneous rebellions by mobile phone in 29 prisons in the state of So Paulo, killing 16 prisoners. The current leader of the group, Marcola, or “Playboy”, is also in jail. This does not prevent him from operating from inside and organising attacks when possible. This organisation is to some extent dependent on the use of mobile phones for coordination. One possible way to provide prisoners with mobile phones, or similar communication systems, is through drones. Drones can be able to bypass prison security and drop these devices in areas where prisoners can pick them up.
Drug cartels are now using drone bombings in increasingly audacious assassination attempts, both for their psychological impact and to circumvent normal security. The small payloads that these drones can carry include weapons such as a grenade or small explosives to attack very specific targets, mostly authorities and rival organisations. As authorities observe, these missions have become more popular in recent years and pose a major challenge to national security (source).
According to Mexico’s military, drug gangs have escalated their use of improvised explosive devices, particularly bomb-throwing and suicide drones. Drone-carried bombs, which were uncommon in Mexico before 2020, are particularly on the rise. For instance, 260 similar cases have been reported so far this year. This figure may be an underestimate, given that inhabitants in some sections of the western state of Michoacan report bomb-dropping drone strikes daily. Moreover, 42 soldiers, police officers, and suspects were injured by these devices in 2023, up from 16 in 2022.
4.4.1 CJNG and Weaponised Drones
However, the CJNG has been involved with these types of devices since late 2017 in various regions of Mexico, according to analyst Dr. Robert J. Bunker (source). Mexican Defence Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval González stated that armed drones were discovered in Guanajuato and Jalisco, both of which have a major CJNG presence. Sandoval also observed that “all these explosive devices are homemade, based on tutorials that can be found on the internet” (source).
Drones are therefore part of a broader strategy by cartels to arm themselves as rogue militaries.
The use of drones for the activities described above has increased considerably in the region, especiallyusingf drones as weapons. This activity occurs especially in Mexico, Colombia and the United States. Below we will see some examples:
In September 2020, Colombian authorities seized two drones, loaded with 600 grams of plastic explosives, as well as shrapnel (screws and nails), in the vicinity of Tumaco. The explosion of the charge contained in the devices would have caused a ripple of at least 20 metres in the surrounding area when they hit their target. The devices are believed to be the property of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, a violent group of FARC dissidents who, according to the authorities, are involved in drug trafficking. The army believes that the intention was to attack armed forces troops and civilians (source).
The CJNG has taken inspiration from Middle Eastern Islamists and has been using drones to drop bombs. Its rivals, the United Cartels (Cárteles Unidos) and the Sinaloa Cartel (Cártel de Sinaloa) have also upgraded their arsenals and use drones to bomb their enemies (source). The use of drones has been particularly active during 2020 and 2021.
On July 25, 2020, a weaponized commercial off-the-shelf drone was discovered in an armoured truck operated by the CJNG in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán. Authorities believe it was to be used for an air strike against a rival cartel (source).
In 2021, again in Tepalcatepec, a large group of CJNG gunmen used drones loaded with C4 explosives and shrapnel to attack a group of enemies. A month earlier, a similar attack took place, in which two local policemen were injured by a drone in Aguililla. According to experts, they were designed to be remotely detonated and could have caused lethal damage (source).
In 2023, a drone loaded with explosives burned trees in a huge flame near the town of Tepalcatepec, and dozens of people fled for their lives (source).
While drones, especially small ones, are dangerous and difficult to detect and neutralise, there are several ways to fight them, although they can sometimes prove difficult to implement.
One method of stopping them is an electronic attack against a drone’s radio communications, which operate in WiFi frequency bands. However, the potential influence on civilian communications makes signal jamming complicated. Jamming and spoofing of Global Positioning System (GPS) signals are also problematic since these signals are omnipresent in everyday life. Attacking GPS in an urban context would hinder first responders, delivery vehicles, and construction equipment, among others. It would also jeopardise the safety of piloted aircraft, particularly passenger planes.
Stopping a drone in a war zone is easier because there are no such legal constraints. Authorities could therefore use lasers, anti-aircraft weapons, jamming, spoofing, chip-frying microwaves, nets, and kamikaze drones. Nevertheless, none of these are viable solutions near the border, where an uncontrolled narco-drone confrontation might be deadly.
6.1 Government Action
Governments in the area are catching up by acquiring counter-narcotics assets. For example, in recent years, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) purchased six Citadel Defence Titan anti-drone systems. These can detect and attack drone radiofrequency communications. These inhibitors are the latest step in the ever-changing battle between criminals and the law. The Department of Homeland Security is also investing in drone forensics to identify the drone’s origins and users (source).
Authorities in several Latin American countries have also begun a race to catch up with drones in the face of their increasing use by illegal smuggling groups. Colombia’s armed forces are buying anti-drone weapons. Some interfere with electrical communication between the base and the drone. Others shoot drones and take them down.
Regarding Mexico, and in terms of weaponry, the armed forces have the technology to counteract the use of drones by criminal groups. However, according to Dr. Cecilia Farfán Méndez, the perception changes. Seventy per cent of Mexicans believe that criminal groups have more and better weapons.
There are several areas where the threat of cartel drones is particularly acute, and will likely increase. This will force authorities to develop and invest in technologies and strategies to face these challenges.
7.1 Mexico and the US
The first is Mexico and the southern border of the United States. This border has a clear advantage in terms of drone use just for drug trafficking. First, because it is wide and difficult to patrol, especially the Southwest. Furthermore, drones often move from one populous area to another, which helps to conceal their activities. Moreover, drones flying from Mexico to the United States traverse significantly shorter distances than those flying from Colombia to Panama. This means less danger of discovery and technical malfunction.
7.2 South America
Concerning drones in South America, border security has always been a concern between Panama and Colombia. This is because their shared geography is a hotspot for drug, human, and weapon trafficking, as well as money laundering. Especially interesting is the so-called “Darién Gap”. This is described by authorities in both countries as a lawless jungle region along the two borders. Therefore it serves as a hotspot of illegal activity because it is entirely controlled by drug trafficking organisations such as the FARC and now dissidents.
It is therefore likely that the use of drones by drug traffickers and other criminal groups will increase in the coming years given the ease of moving drugs, obtaining intelligence, and their use as improvised weapons. It is also likely that its use will expand beyond Mexico and Colombia to reach other high-crime areas such as the triple borders of South America.
7.3 Critical Infrastructure
While the use of drones to attack critical infrastructure has not been recorded so far, this does not mean that it will not happen in the future. One possible development of drones by DTOs is the development of drones and strategies to attack and disable critical state infrastructure (source).
7.4 Capacity Enhancement
In turn, the national authorities of the affected countries will likely increase efforts against this new threat, strengthening and acquiring new neutralization capabilities. This is illustrated by Panama and Colombia’s future cooperation. As part of their commitment to improving border security, both governments announced plans to establish two security facilities in “La Olla” and “La Balsa”. They also talked about merging two other security outposts in Alto Limón and La Union.
According to the authorities, this collaboration is expected to reduce all forms of illegal activities in the region. It should also block the new imposition of drone use in the area before it achieves the same popularity as it has in Mexico.
The use of drones has become significantly popular in recent years. Although when we think of drones, we associate them with those of a military or commercial nature, criminals have also seized the opportunity. This translates into their use as devices that facilitate criminal activity. In the case of Latin America, cartels and drug traffickers use them in different ways. To transport drugs across borders, obtain intelligence, communicate, and even attack law enforcement and rival groups.
The use of these devices will likely spread throughout the continent given the ease of acquisition and how economical they are. Furthermore, their use will likely evolve from small devices to large drones with more range, service ceiling and payload. This gradual improvement of means has already been seen with narco-submarines. This improvement will make interception even more difficult and will require the use of military weapons.
Although the authorities can deal with them for the moment, it is difficult for them to intercept large quantities. Those armed and weaponised also present huge risks for the authorities and civilians. Furthermore, it is possible that at some point more advanced technology will have to be used for its neutralization, especially for more complex drones. This is why governments must be flexible and know how to adapt to this technology. This means the acquisition of anti-drone systems and the research and development of new anti-drone technologies. Staying behind will only give a greater advantage to cartels and worsen the security situation of the affected countries.