The influx of commercially available drone technology has introduced a slew of challenges for American military and law enforcement officials. Iranian drones have interrupted flight operations aboard U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, Frankenstein-like drones fielded by the Islamic State have carried out suicide missions or dropped explosives on coalition fighters, and now, drones are being used to ferry large amounts of drugs, like methamphetamine, over the border from Mexico.
Jorge Edwin Rivera, a 25-year-old U.S. citizen, was arrested on August 8th for using a drone to carry a whopping 13 pounds of methamphetamine into the United States from Mexico. While it isn’t particularly unusual for law enforcement to intercept drugs making their way across the border by way of remote-controlled aircraft, the sheer amount of meth carried by the drone makes this instance stand out as an indicator of how quickly these challenges are mounting.
Rivera told law enforcement that he has used similar methods to smuggle large amounts of methamphetamine over the border “five or six times” since March, usually delivering them to an accomplice at a gas station in San Diego. He was paid $1,000 for each attempt.
Agents from the U.S. Border Patrol reportedly saw the drone in flight and followed it approximately 2,000 yards beyond the Mexican border. By the time they reached Rivera, he had hidden the drone, as well as the thirteen pounds of drugs, in a nearby bush.
“Due to the agents’ heightened vigilance, this drone smuggling scheme was stopped before these dangerous narcotics could enter our communities,” said Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Boone Smith in a statement.
The drone Rivera reportedly used, a DJI Matrice 600, has a payload limit of just over 13 pounds, which matches the amount of drugs seized. According to authorities, the methamphetamine they confiscated would have had a street value of roughly $46,000.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, drones are still not a commonly employed tactic to mule drugs over the border, as they are unable to carry large enough loads to make the risk worth it in most instances, however, this is not the first time a formidable load of illegal substances has made it into the United States this way. In 2015, two people pleaded guilty to using drones to drop 28 pounds of heroin carried over from Mexico into the hands of accomplices in the border town of Calexico, California. Later that year, a similar operation was uncovered as it delivered over 30 pounds of marijuana.
According to Alana Robinson, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, drones have not been the method of preference for drug delivery because the noise they make can attract attention, their low payload carry weight, and short battery lifespan, but as commercially available drone technology continues to improve, it’s likely that we will begin to see more use of drones in smuggling operations like these.
“The Border Patrol is very aware of the potential and are always listening and looking for drones,” Robinson said.
The U.S. military has been working to develop a number of potential defense technologies to be employed against drones being used to deliver ordinance or employed in gathering reconnaissance, and recently, the Pentagon authorized more than 130 U.S. military bases around the country to shoot down commercial drones that pose a threat to operations within their borders.
Image courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection