Explosive-laden drones become Mexican cartels’ new terror weapon

Border Crime

Mexican Defense Secretary links Jalisco cartel to drone attacks in three states

Tijuana Police wants to use more drones like this one to patrol the city. (Courtesy: Tijuana Municipal Police)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A Mexican drug cartel is using explosive-laden drones as a terror weapon against police and possibly its rivals, a tactic other criminal organizations could mimic security experts say.

The latest attack came last week near the town of Aguililla, Michoacan. Two state police officers were injured by a commercial drone carrying a packed gunpowder bomb, Mexican authorities said.

Mexican Defense Secretary Crescencio Luis Sandoval (courtesy Government of Mexico)

“We have established some cartels … the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, are using this. There have been cases in Guanajuato, in Jalisco and this one in Michoacan,” Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval said. “They are worrisome but have not been as effective as they would want. They cannot carry amounts that can damage (military) installations.”

Sandoval said the officers suffered wounds to legs and arms and the drone operator was arrested.

Scott Stewart, a global security expert, said Americans shouldn’t be surprised at the cartels’ use of drone warfare. They have been using drones for years to drop drugs across the border with the U.S. and in 2018 crashed a drone with an explosive device in the backyard of a Baja California police official’s home.

“Drones are becoming more prevalent and cheaper. Certainly, groups such as the drug cartels and other violent non-state actors are paying attention to what they’re seeing in places like Iraq, where the Islamic State used drones” as far back as 2015, said Stewart, vice president of intelligence at TorchStone Global.

A Houthi rebels’ drone attack on Saudi oil fields earlier this year drove oil prices above $71 a barrel and brought home the terror threat of drone warfare. That came after a September 2019 attack on a processing facility. But the Iran-back militias were using sophisticated Samar 3 UAV drones, as opposed to flimsy rotor-driven devices.

“The good news is the cartels are limited in what they can do based on range, the size of items they carry and the munitions they’re dropping,” Stewart said. “So far, we’re seeing the cartels play with hand grenades or potato bombs (packed gunpowder) and improvised explosive devices. These tend to be low-power and slow by nature. They’re not sophisticated warheads like we see in military drones.”

The Jalisco cartel and other criminal organizations would like to acquire military grade drones, but it’s not that easy, Stewart said.

“State sponsors wouldn’t like to be linked to that. Also, from the Mexican cartels’ standpoint, it could endanger them being labeled terrorists, and they don’t want that,” he said. That’s the reason they don’t use car bombs against the police even though they have such capabilities.

“At this point in time, they’re really more of a psychological weapon for the cartels than an effective battlefield weapon,” Stewart said.

A trio of C/O Futures LLC analysts this year published a report stating the expectation is for cartel use of attack drones to become more common and sophisticated. So far, though, only the Jalisco cartel and smaller groups are known to have used these devices.

The Sinaloa cartel, the Gulf cartel and the remnants of the Zetas may be avoiding the use of weaponized drones so as to not further antagonize the governments of Mexico and the U.S., the C/O Futures analysts stated.

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