How Organized Crime Networks Are Using Drones to Their Advantage

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Criminal groups increasingly deploying drones — for purposes ranging from surveillance to reported armed attacks of rivals — has provoked a strong government response in Mexico. But will it be enough?

To monitor and disable drones, Mexico’s Defense Ministry (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional — SEDENA) plans to employ an anti-drone system costing 215.7 million pesos (about $9.6 million), according to a September 21 El Universal report based on documents obtained by the media outlet.

The acquisition of the new technology comes about a month after a striking report that claimed the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) had deployed drones loaded with military-grade C4 explosives in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán. The drones targeted local vigilante groups.

SEE ALSO: Are Armed Drones the Weapon of the Future for Mexico’s Cartels?

While the alleged equipping of drones with explosives by one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels may have raised concerns among authorities, drone use by criminal groups is usually limited to surveillance.

In September, indigenous leaders in the Caru area of Brazil’s northern Maranhão state said they feared their territory was being continuously monitored with drones controlled by illegal loggers and drug traffickers seeking to plant marijuana in the zone, UOL News reported.

And drug traffickers in Guatemala employed drones to guide drug planes to clandestine landing strips hidden in Laguna del Tigre National Park, the Washington Post reported in July.

Rangers and soldiers in the zone said they could hear drones fly over jungle bases about once a week. The drug planes subsequently arrived after dark, indicating that traffickers had been using the devices to survey the whereabouts of authorities to ensure a problem-free landing for their pilots.

“Their resources are infinite, and we are just trying to keep up,” Juan de la Paz, a Guatemalan army colonel based in the area, told the Washington Post.

The Brookings Institute recently predicted that increased restriction of movement associated with the COVID-19 pandemic would only serve to speed up the proliferation of drone use by crime groups.

InSight Crime Analysis

While Mexico’s anti-drone plan comes on the heels of reports that such devices were weaponized by the CJNG, it appears the predominant use of drones by criminal groups is for surveillance, allowing them to monitor patrols near drug trafficking and human trafficking routes.

For example, police in Honduras claimed that the MS13 street gang used drones to escape a raid on a marijuana stash house in San Pedro Sula, La Prensa reported. The gang also employed a video surveillance network in marginal neighborhoods on San Pedro Sula’s outskirts.

Human smuggling groups have also deployed such technology to surveil border regions.

SEE ALSO: Drone Use in Latin America: Dangers and Opportunities

In April 2019, a US border patrol agent based in the El Paso sector spotted a drone flying back and forth from Mexico shortly before 10 people were found attempting to cross the border illegally in the same area where the drone had been seen.

For large-scale networks and smaller organizations alike, consumer drones provide a relatively cheap, easily accessible surveillance technology.

Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Centro de Estudios Estratégicos Internacionales — CSIS), told El Confidencial earlier this year that organized crime groups have been deploying drones that are “commercially available” but “have been adapted for other purposes.”

He added that “anyone can go to a shop and buy one,” suggesting that drone use by such groups for surveillance purposes will only increase as potential benefits far outweigh costs.

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