Drone drug-smuggling has surged so much along the U.S.-Mexico border that the Border Patrol issued a stark plea last week asking residents in southwestern Arizona to step up and help them by spotting and reporting any incursions.
A spokesman for the Border Patrol in Yuma says new border wall construction has disrupted cartels’ normal routes and sent them into the air to try to find new ways to get narcotics from Mexico into the U.S.
But detecting drones remains a struggle for agents, and they are asking the public to pitch in.
“We are reaching out to the public to help us out should they see anything suspicious that may be a drone being used illicitly,” said agent Benjamin Rodriguez, the Border Patrol community liaison for the Yuma region.
It’s difficult to say how many drone incursions there are — chiefly because it’s obvious to agents that they’re not detecting them all.
But the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector says it is detecting plenty more than it did.
Over the last three months of 2019, Yuma recorded no drone detections. This year, from October to last week, agents spotted seven, said Macario Mora, a spokesman for the sector.
“This could be attributable to the new wall construction, which is forcing cartels to adjust their strategy to the Border Patrol’s new and updated strategy and structure,” he told The Washington Times.
High-level Homeland Security officials in Washington say the wall is also pushing drug loads underground, to tunnels, and onto the water. But those methods require substantial investment and the cost of a blown tunnel or seized Panga-style boat is high.
Other methods agents have seen for getting drugs over the wall include flying them by ultralight, firing them by catapult or shooting them with something like a potato cannon.
Unlike the projectile methods, a drone can be controlled and can fly deep into the U.S. and, unlike an ultralight plane, there is no need to risk a pilot and the price of a rig.
The drones that smugglers are using are generally off-the-shelf models that cost up to a few thousand dollars and are capable of carrying 2 to 5 pounds.
That’s not enough to smuggle marijuana profitably, but it’s perfect for harder drugs such as methamphetamine or heroin. At $20,000 a pound on the streets, a 5-pound meth shipment could be worth $100,000.
Smugglers will usually try to sneak over several loads with the same drone each time, Mr. Rodriguez said.
Air & Space magazine reported this summer that one recovered “narcodrone” revealed it had made hundreds of cross-border flights before agents nabbed it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further upended the usual model for smuggling hard drugs, which often relies on people carrying moderate amounts in cars or on their bodies through official ports of entry.
With fewer small loads entering the U.S., cartels are turning to trucks, tractor-trailers and other large-scale methods, Robert Perez, deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told reporters last week.
Borderwide, he said, fentanyl seizures were up 225% in November compared with the same month in 2019. Methamphetamine seizures were up 43%. Like illegal migration, CBP figures that an increase in encounters signals an overall increase in the amount getting through, so a rise in seizures means more drugs likely escaped detection as well.
Drones have been a problem for much of the past decade, and CBP has been working on ways to spot and counter them.
A federal law in 2018 gave the Department of Homeland Security the authority to try to bring down drones, known by the bureaucratic designation unmanned aircraft system, deemed to be engaged in illegal activity, and CBP is now testing counterdrone technologies, according to a document released over the summer.
That review concluded: “Due to technological advancements and improved costs, Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) are increasingly using UAS to smuggle contraband into the United States. The ability for TCOs to use UAS to smuggle narcotics, contraband, and surveil law enforcement operations has empowered TCOs and made it easier for them to evade law enforcement.”
CBP awarded a contract last year to Citadel Defense for its Titan system, which can force down unauthorized drones.
Often, though, just spotting the drones comes down to luck.
One 2017 smuggling incident in Southern California was detected only because the smugglers forgot to cover one of the lights on a drone. Agents traced the drone and found Jorge Rivera, a DJI drone and more than 13 pounds of methamphetamine.
Though agents suspected he operated the drone, Rivera insisted that was never proved. He was convicted for picking up the drugs and sentenced to more than 12 years in prison and 10 years of probation.
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said in the years since, CBP hasn’t gotten any better at detecting or bringing down drones.
“It remains a huge problem,” he said.
He said wall or not, drones were going to be a tactic for drug smuggling.
“Cartels are always looking for the safest (safe as in not getting seized), cost effective, and expeditious manner possible and drones make sense in all three aspects,” he said in an email.
Yet even as drones present a threat, they mark an opportunity for agents, who themselves are flying drones to gain a better awareness of the areas they are patrolling.
They are being used up along the border to spot groups of people laid up waiting for an opportunity to break north, but also deeper into the U.S. near highway checkpoints, where they can spot people hiking through the brush to try to circumvent the barricade.
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