Drones are reportedly more cost-effective than narcotics submarines like this cartel drug sub. Image: Wikimedia
We know that small-fry drones have been used to smuggle illegal drugs and contraband into prisons, and that mobsters used a homemade drone to smuggle cigarettes into Russia. According to various reports, the Mexican drug cartel is also manufacturing drones to transport narcotics over the US border.
"Before long, ambitious cartel members will begin to fly unmanned drone aircraft from Mexico into the US, packed with high value narcotics," drone lawyer John L. Davidson wrote on his blog.
The use of drug drones wouldn't be surprising. Homemade unmanned vehicles are more cost-effective and lower risk than sending manned aircraft and narco submarines to smuggle drugs into the US.
"Theoretically it's something that could be done and indeed we should expect it at some point in the future," Peter Singer, a UAV security and intelligence expert at the Brookings Institute, told me in an email.
“Cartels are adaptive in their use of technology. And drones are a technology becoming more and more available,” he said. “They will match new means to their old ends. The key questions for them as to whether they use drones more and more will be how they allow the cartel to evade surveillance or capture, and lower costs compared to traditional methods."
Davidson wrote that traffickers in Mexico and Latin America are using homemade drones made by line workers from aircraft factories moonlighting for the cartels. One narco drone assembly line is located in the Santa Fe District of Mexico City, near the Bombardier factory at Queretaro, according to Davidson. The drones are made to be lightweight, easily transported, undetected by radar, and strong enough to carry the necessary payload.
Reportedly, the cartel drones are on authorities' radar. Americas Post reported that the Public Security Secretariat of Mexico (SSP) made an announcement four years ago explaining how the cartels were using ultra-lightweight UAVs to smuggle cocaine into the States.
The Undersecretary of the SSP, Francisco Gonzalez, told the Post that the drug-toting drones weigh about 100 pounds and can transport 100 kilograms of cocaine per trip. A kilo of coke that costs $1,700 in Colombia or $8,000 in Mexico sells for $30,000 in the US, he said, earning the traffickers some $2 million a flight.
US border patrol has of course been using drones to spy on the cartels for years, but officials have not yet confirmed that the technology is also being leveraged by the drug runners. I contacted the FBI field office in El Paso to comment on the reported operation, and will update with their response.