Mexican Cartels Are Embracing Aerial Drones and They're Spreading – War on the Rocks

Aerial drones, once the domain of states alone, have become standard features of the arsenals of terrorists, insurgents, and guerrillas. These actors find the flexibility of aerial drones appealing. But they are not the only ones: As we discuss in our new book Criminal Drone Evolution, criminal and cartel uses of small weaponized drones are increasingly in the news.
 
 
Cartel commandos are attacking rival gangs and security forces with armed drones, enhancing their combat power. We can clearly track their technological and tactical progress on this front. It is a part of the increased tactical and operational sophistication of criminal groups in Mexico’s crime wars. This violent conflict goes well beyond typical criminal violence, including terrorist tactics, infantry operations, and barbarization in a quest for territorial control, power, and profit. At times, the levels of sustained violence and sophistication of the groups involved reach levels that rightfully become non-international armed conflicts, whether that is acknowledged or not.
How Do Cartels Use Drones?
In the case of Mexico, the multi-decade narco-conflict is metastasizing throughout the country, which is witnessing arms races between the various belligerent criminal organizations. While the development, acquisition, and fielding of cartel combat drones is representative of just one of these armament races, this technology is also being integrated for combined arms operations and will, at the same time, also likely impact the trajectory of other cartel armaments, like improvised armored fighting vehicle design and tactics. With this in mind, we have observed four ways that cartels have been increasingly using drones. These tactics and techniques began to emerge once cartels moved beyond solely using drones for narcotics smuggling in or around 2010. After a period of experimentation, they began using drones for surveillance a few years later, as weapons in 2017, for propaganda in 2020, and for night vision combat just this year.
Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance
Cartels are using drones to watch, scout, and gather information to support their own combined arms operations. These combat operations tend to involve mounted infantry forces deployed in improvised armored fighting vehicle-based commando units. Initially, these improvised armored fighting vehicles were deployed in ones and twos by the cartels (especially back in the days of Los Zetas operations for Cártel del Golfo from the late 1990s up to about 2009), but they have since been formed into much larger mounted infantry units, with Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel social media now dominating much of the imagery related to them. These commando units and the tactics they utilize (as well as the counter-tactics utilized by the forces defending against them) are seeing the inclusion of anti-tank weapons (typically rocket-propelled grenades, more .50 caliber anti-materiel rifles, and machine guns of various calibers) increasingly in armored turrets; anti-improvised armored fighting vehicle ditches which are, at times, linked to complex defensive positions with interlocking fields of fire; the sporadic appearance of indirect fires (mortars); and even the possibility of the use of anti-tank mines (e.g., buried pressure-detonated improvised explosive devices and/or culvert bombs). We are now, over the last year, beginning to witness intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones linked directly to cartel (as well as autodefensas) improvised armored fighting vehicles and commando units as they evolve and as the value of route and target reconnaissance missions becomes ever more recognized.
Weaponized Drones
Cartels’ use of drones as weapons and weapons platforms is shifting from single-use to multi-use platforms. This is a documented trend that can be tracked across incidents, including attacks in Valtierrilla on Oct. 20, 2017; Tecate on July 10, 2018; Puebla on April 26 and 26, 2020; Tepalcatepec on July 25, 2020); Aguililla on April 20, 2021; San Andrés Cholula on April 22, 2021; and Tepalcatepec on May 4, 2021. In an early single-use incident in Tecate, a police commander woke up to find a weaponized drone, with two grenades and a note secured to it, sitting on his outdoor patio. To his shock, the note warned him to back off from messing with the business of the local cartel or else. In a later multi-use incident in Aguililla, two police officers were clearing a roadblock when, to their horror, a cartel drone dropped an explosive next to them injuring them both (according to some reports). The Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel has primarily perpetrated these incidents with limited involvement by the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel. Fragmentary reports concerning the later incidents being linked to new cartel aerial bombardment capabilities were validated in fall 2021 based on the release of a cartel video in which a structure was bombarded and imagery related to cartel improvised explosive bomblets social media postings and Mexican governmental seizures.
Propaganda
Cartels are also using video shot by drones for propaganda and related operations. The cartels have been utilizing still imagery and videos to convey their narratives to one another, the populace of Mexico, and the federal government for decades now in their social media postings. This messaging can take on both patronage themes — such as those tied to social banditry and benevolent jefe (plaza boss) archetypes — as well as those related to conflict and barbarism, including what can be considered the application of narco-terrorism tactics and ongoing psychological operations campaigns. Cartel drone video use for propaganda purposes is a relatively recent event and it currently only focuses on social welfare provision. Such drone video use has taken place in Tecalitlán, Jalisco in April 2020 related to the provision of COVID-19 food aid to local villagers by the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel. At least one instance from Sept. 22, 2021, in which a cartel drone aerial bombardment video was released for propaganda and psychological operations purposes, has now taken place.
Night Vision Combat
Cartel narcotics smuggling and reconnaissance drones have operated under nighttime conditions for about five or six years now, utilizing thermal cameras (forward-looking infrared) for navigation/visual flight and intelligence and surveillance purposes. Such low visibility use includes a narcotics bundle drop near San Luis, Arizona in November 2015; another drop near the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego in August 2017; counter-surveillance (human trafficking “look out”) use at the Antelope Wells port of entry and also at Sunland Park, New Mexico in April 2019; narcotics drops in Yuma, Arizona in May and November 2020; and a nighttime weaponized drone attack directed against police officers in Aguililla, Michoacán in April 2021.
It’s Spreading
Beyond these four ways that Mexican cartels are using drones, there are other developments. The first is the evident proliferation of these drones to organized crime groups and gangs elsewhere in Latin America, as well as in the Caribbean. This includes the weaponized drone attacks in Venezuela against President Nicolás Maduro in August 2018 and the discovery of weaponized drones in Colombia belonging to a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia splinter group in September 2019. Further, grenade-dropping drones were said to be components of the Haitian president’s assassination operation conducted by foreign mercenaries (per the findings of a Haitian National Police report), which took place in July 2021. Drones were also involved in the targeting of a gang member block (presumably by an opposing gang) at an Ecuadorian prison in El Litoral, which was aerial bombarded by multiple drones in September 2021. Many Ecuadorian prisons are now outfitted with counter-drone jamming devices to deny gangs the ability to drop drugs into prison yards. The El Litoral aerial bombing incident may signify that drone command-and-control counter-measures are now being instituted by criminal gangs. If this is the case, then an additional concern may exist regarding weaponized drone use spreading within various regions of the Americas.
We have also observed the usage of larger drones that can carry heavier payloads at longer ranges. Such drones — like the one recently seized in the port city of Málaga, Spain in July 2021 — would provide the cartels with a quantum capability jump if they began to appear in their arsenals. Racks of bomblets could be attached to such drones, as well as the inclusion of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and rockets, which would provide the cartels with standoff anti-helicopter and anti-vehicular capabilities against Mexican federal forces. While this may sound speculative and alarmist, such air-to-air and air-to-ground drone-based weaponry is becoming more common in former Soviet Union territories and other regions (using Chinese and Turkish system exports) where combat drones have been evolving, and their use spreading, for many years now.
The continued proliferation of aerial drones by non-state actors, criminals, and criminal armed groups can be expected as unmanned aerial systems offer a number of tactical and operational benefits. They provide these actors an aerial maneuver dimension for smuggling, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, and now the ability to target their adversaries with both improvised and military aerial munitions under both daylight and nighttime conditions. Law enforcement and military forces will be faced with these threats and need to develop countermeasures. Furthermore, they need to integrate these countermeasures into their legal frameworks, doctrines, and training for neutralizing aerial drone threats. In addition, these security services should continue to monitor these trends to detect future technological and tactical innovations.
 
 
Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D., is the director of research and analysis, as well as a managing partner, of C/O Futures, LLC. He is also a senior fellow with Small Wars Journal – El Centro. John P. Sullivan, Ph.D., is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, an associate with C/O Futures, and a senior fellow with Small Wars Journal – El Centro. They are the editors of Criminal Drone Evolution: Cartel Weaponization of Aerial IEDs, which was published in October 2021.
Image: U.S. Air National Guard (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire)
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