Game of Drones: Mexico’s Cartels Have a Deadly New Weapon
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
A squad of Federales pulled over the stolen SUV just after dawn on October 20, along Highway 43D near the town of Salamanca in Mexico’s central Guanajuato state. What began as a high-risk felony stop took an even darker turn when officers ordered the four passengers out and began to search the vehicle.
The aerial drone in the rear cargo bay was armed and ready to be deployed. Sitting in an open plastic case beside an AK47 assault rifle and spare clips. The 3DR Solo Quadcopter carried a shrapnel-filled IED that was in turn rigged to detonate by remote control.
It was the first time a weaponized Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) had been found in the hands of an organized crime group in Mexico.
“[Such] explosives and weapons are for the exclusive use of the Army,” said State Attorney Carlos Zamarripa in a statement that characterized the drone’s payload as a “large explosive charge.”
The weapon could have been used effectively against authorities, criminal rivals, or to terrorize innocent civilians, according to a report by security analyst Robert Bunker, a professor in Strategic Studies at the U.S. Army War college.
While contraband-laden drones operated by Mexican cartels have frequently penetrated U.S. airspace, none of them have been armed—yet. But the drone’s discovery comes at a time of widespread escalation of crime-related violence in Mexico, and could be a sign of things to come.
The finding of an armed UAV “represents a clear firebreak for the Mexican cartels,” Bunker told The Daily Beast.
“It would offer them a lot of new combat potentials if similar weaponized drones began to proliferate [and] an offensive advantage when they went up against Mexican federal police and military units,” Bunker said.
“This would be somewhat similar to the advantage ISIS had over Iraqi and Kurdish forces,” when they began using bomb-equipped drones in large numbers a few years ago.
The intended destination for the UAV seized near Salamanca might have been the nearby municipality of Celaya, where several dismembered corpses have turned up recently. Such grisly displays are often a sign of infighting between competing crime groups.
Cartel Clone Drone
U.S. authorities have long known drug smugglers ferry narcotics across the border from Mexico via drones. Given the rising tide of violence—with 2017 on pace to be the deadliest year on record in the country’s drug war—experts say it was only a matter of time before cartel UAVs were loaded with bombs instead of dope.
The Guanajuato rig could travel at a top speed of 55 mph bearing its payload. The sling for cradling the IED beneath the main housing didn’t have an independent release mechanism, meaning the drone would likely have been destroyed along with the intended target when the blast went off.
The design represented a hybrid of terrorist techniques from two continents. ISIS has been wiring IEDs to drones throughout the Middle Eastern theater since at least 2015. Their innovations have become increasingly sophisticated, equipped to carry aerodynamic grenades attached to wire release mechanisms that allow for “serial bombardments,” Bunker explained.
The construction of the bomb found in Mexico, on the other hand, indicated a distinctly South American pedigree.
Called a Papa Bomba, or Potato Bomb, the concept was originally developed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for use against security forces over the course of five decades of civil war. Instead of being carried by drones, the FARC’s Papa Bombas were designed to be thrown by hand or launched from home-made mortars called tatucas.
The mechanics behind this IED are as simple as they are deadly. A core of explosive material such as potassium chlorate, sulfur, and aluminum powder is surrounded by an outer layer of improvised shrapnel like rusty nails and scrap metal. The FARC sometimes added human feces to the mix, so as to spread infection among the wounded. The lethal charge was then wrapped in layers of duct tape, until the packaging resembled an Idaho spud (hence the name).
Potato Bombs first turned up in Mexico in February 2017, in the state of Michoacán, which shares a border with Guanajuato. But the October discovery marked the first time one was found prepped for takeoff. Bunker, who also edits the magazine Small Wars Journal, pointed out that a long-range quadcopter model costs only about $250, literally giving los narcos plenty of bang for their buck.
“Speed, surprise, precision, ease of use, and cost effectiveness,” Bunker ticked off the advantages of drone warfare.
“In a drone threat environment, the ambiguity of never knowing when an attack may take place can indeed make them a great terror weapon.”
Growing Paramilitary Capabilities
Government spokesperson Zamarripa declined to specify which cartel was responsible for the flying IED found in Guanajuato last month, confirming only that it belonged to a “criminal cell.”
Mexico’s underworld has balkanized in the wake of the arrest and extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán back in January. His Sinaloa Cartel has since splintered, wracked by a series of bloody turf battles between both internal factions and outside upstarts. A national report from September indicated more than 2,564 homicides in that month alone, putting the country on pace for an all-time high of 21,200 murders in 2017.
Like many parts of Mexico, Guanajuato is disputed territory for several syndicated criminal organizations. The list includes the Jalisco: New Generation Cartel (CJNG), the Sinaloa Cartel, and the weakened but still fearsome Zetas. (Based on “underlying patterns” in their M.O.s, Bunker said he is “under the working assumption” the drone was owned by CJNG.)
Drones are just the latest addition to the cartels’ fast-growing arsenal of war-making hardware. With Chapo Guzmán’s once-dominant outfit fractured and disorganized, relative newcomers like the CJNG—reported to be Mexico’s fastest-growing crime group—have taken an increasingly militant approach to conflicts with rival mafiosos and state forces.
Criminal insurgents can now deploy weapon systems like belt-fed machine guns, RPGs, multi-round grenade launchers (that fire the same 40mm shell dropped from drones by ISIS), and .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifles capable of penetrating armored vehicles. They also construct “narco tanks” using dump trucks and semi cabs overlaid with heavy layers of sheet metal to make them bulletproof.
And they’re not shy about flexing their paramilitary muscles. The next-gen cartels are known to engage deliberately in pitched battle with infantry units, attack military convoys, and shoot down army helicopters.
“When instances of ‘open warfare’ break out in contested plazas and illicit economic zones, such as currently is taking place in Central Mexico, homicides go through the roof and cartel-military innovation kicks into high gear,” Bunker said. “We can expect to see additional weaponized drones appear in these highly contested [areas].”
Much of the cartels’ new hardware flows south from the U.S. border. Drones are easily available online or at retail outlets in the States. High-powered firearms—including those .50 caliber Barretts the cartels are so fond of—are often bought at gun stores by American citizens and delivered to the cartels in exchange for a bribe. Some estimates suggest as much as 95 percent of weapons enter Mexico from El Norte, although Bunker points out that black-market arms shipments also come from China, Eastern Europe, South Africa, and South Korea.
“Getting weapons and bulk cash across the [U.S.] border, however, is actually easier than you might imagine,” Bunker said. The same “trap cars” that smugglers use to bring illicit substances across the border going north are often loaded up with firepower for the return trip. These “vehicles have large volumes in them where items can be hidden—especially in the voids within their metal frames.”
Despite the rising body count in Mexico, and the plague of addictions and overdoses in the U.S., the leaders of both countries appear reluctant to accept “ethical responsibility” for the drugs-for-guns trade along the border.
“The counter argument on both sides is that the supplier—be it of weapons or narcotics—is simply fulfilling a demand that exists and it’s the junkies and sicarios [hitmen] who are ultimately at fault,” Bunker explained.
“So we have an ethical argument going up against the cold reality of street economics,” he said, “with money being made presently winning hands down.”