In Latin America, drone technology makes it easy to traffic drugs and smuggle contraband into prisons
Transnational organised crime (TOC) groups are incredibly sophisticated. They know how to do business. 8% of the worldwide trade is accounted for the illegal drug trade, estimated to be worth $400 billion a year. This is big business.
You can forget about Netflix’s “Narcos”. The days of smuggling drugs on donkeys and by private airplanes are long gone. Today, drug cartels are using cutting-edge technology to facilitate their activity and constantly innovate.
Across Latin America, these extremely advanced organisations are changing the drug smuggling game. Millions of dollars are laundered using cryptocurrency through dark web transactions and unregulated platforms. Bitcoin’s use is remarkably increasing among drug gangs such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the Sinaloa Cartel of captured kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. “Both Mexican and Colombian TCOs are increasing their use of virtual currency because of the anonymity and speed of transaction”, said DEA spokesman Michael Miller. Another senior DEA official stated that drug cartels in Mexico even obtained high-tech spyware that could hack into mobile phones.
Technology has made it easier to smuggle drugs across borders. Unmanned aerial vehicles are being used by tech-savvy drug cartels in Columbia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine, to transport drugs into Panama. Mexico’s drug cartels use modified commercial drones to attack enemies and smuggle drugs into the United States. The drugs are attached to drones and flown over the border wall from Mexico and across deserts to deliver the cargo to a predetermined US location. This is the era of the “Narcodrone”.
One of the biggest challenges in combating narcodrones is that they are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain. Criminals can purchase them online or in stores and modify them to carry small drugs and other contraband packages. This makes it difficult for authorities to monitor and intercept drone deliveries.
“Drones are usually for small deliveries, very low quantities, and several times a week. It’s like a flying ant, you start little by little, but at the end, you have built a huge stack of drugs,” one operative told Insider magazine.
Drug traffickers and other criminals are increasingly brazen
It seems that drone drug smuggling is on the rise every single day. In 2022, 10,000 illegal cartel drones crossed the U.S. border from Mexico. Technology is advancing, and drones are becoming more capable of range and cargo capacity. Drones are bought in the US and modified for use as weapons or drug mules. “These are bought in the US, in California or by internet. They are normal drones, like a Mavic or Mavic 2. They can fly somewhat far and carry some load…We use C4 or Tovex to make the explosives. It’s a little bit harder to make those, but they are very effective. In a simpler form we use hand grenades taped to a drone, remove the secure [lever], and fly it toward target,” the operative said.
Mexican drug cartels have also been increasingly utilising tweaked commercial drones as part of their arsenal for attacking enemies. With the help of these drones, cartels can carry out targeted assassinations and ambushes with deadly precision. The use of technology by drug cartels underscores the need for law enforcement to continue to innovate to combat drug trafficking.
Prison officials in Latin America have reported an increased the use of narcodrones in recent years. In 2020, the Brazilian government reported intercepting more than 200 drone deliveries of contraband to prisons. In Mexico, Columbia and Chile, authorities have seized drones carrying drugs and other illegal items in several prisons.
There is also a problem with narcodrones in North America. A drone was used in 2019 to deliver drugs to a prison in Ohio, and another drone was found carrying drugs and contraband near a prison in Ontario in 2022. There is also a problem with narcodrones in North America. Between 2019 and 2023, drones smuggled drugs and contraband into prisons in Ohio and Ontario. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reported an increased drone sightings near prisons in the United States. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Drug traffickers and other criminals are increasingly brazen in their efforts to smuggle contraband into prisons. They are now using drones to deliver illicit items such as knives, scissors, and guns to inmates with alarming frequency. These drones are often equipped with fishing lines or other mechanisms that allow them to drop items into prison yards undetected.
A narcodrone boom
The year 2022 saw a significant increase in the use of drones to smuggle contraband into prisons worldwide. All evidence points to a boom year for this illegal activity, with reports of drones dropping drugs, cellphones, and other prohibited items into prisons becoming increasingly frequent. Drones have made it easier for criminals to bypass traditional security measures and deliver contraband directly to inmates. The trend is a cause for concern, as it poses a significant risk to the safety and security of prisons and their staff.
Latin American police agencies use drones to combat narcodrones. They deploy UAVs to monitor drug trafficking along the border regions of Mexico, Columbia, and Brazil. Additionally, UAVs monitor illegal coastal activities and provide aerial photos and video to security forces. This enables them to thwart crime in real-time.
Drone detection and counter-drone technologies are constantly being developed and improved. The use of counterattacks, signal jamming, spoofing, and wearable C-UAS solutions to detect and mitigate remote-controlled commercial drones can play a vital role in combating narcodrones. Counter-drone can intercept and neutralise drones before they reach their intended targets, preventing drugs and other contraband from entering prisons. Additionally, C-UAS can help identify the operators of these drones, providing valuable intelligence to law enforcement agencies in their efforts to track down and apprehend drug traffickers and other criminals. As the use of drones in criminal activity continues to grow, the development and deployment of C-UAS technology will be an essential tool in the fight against drug trafficking and other forms of organised crime.