Mexico’s Cartels Building Custom-Made Narco Drones: DEA

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Mexico’s drug cartels are reportedly commissioning custom-made drones to transport narcotics across the US border, illustrating the continual development of innovative new technologies and methods used to traffic drugs.

Cartels have begun hiring local workers from companies in Mexico to develop custom drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), suited to their needs, according to an unnamed Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) source consulted by El Universal.

Since 2012, the DEA has registered around 150 narco drones crossing the border, transporting in total approximately two tons of cocaine and other drugs. This amounts to an average of roughly 13 kilos per load.

US and Mexican authorities have identified Queretaro, Guadalajara, Nuevo Leon and Mexico City as the drone production points, where cartels pay professionals two to three times their normal salary for this custom technology.

While cartels used to use foreign-made drones, the new reliance on home-grown technology and construction is more cost-effective — the method is cheaper than the construction of cross-border tunnels or the use of semi-submersible vessels, according to El Universal’s report.

InSight Crime Analysis

These new developments represent the latest in a long list of technologies and drug transport methods developed by cartels. 

Clandestine tunnels, which drug trafficking organizations have used since at least 1990, have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. A “super tunnel” discovered in 2013, for example, used a railway line to transport drugs and was equipped with electricity and ventilation.

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The transformation of the semi-submersible craft is also indicative of this trend. Initially rudimentary in their design to facilitate trafficking in maritime routes, they have been developed to sport kitchens and air-conditioning, with the capacity to carry around eight tons of cocaine.

In addition to drones, cartels use other forms of aerial transport, like ultralight aircraft, an inexpensive method favored by drug trafficking organizations for their ability to evade radar while carrying around 100 kilo loads.

Mexican criminal organizations have been using UAVs since at least 2010, but the relatively small amount of drugs transported per trip on the drones registered by the DEA helps explain why the cartels want to develop larger, specially tailored UAVs. As drone technology worldwide becomes increasingly accessible and cost effective, commissioning custom-made drones in Mexico is the next logical step for cartels. 

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