The Rise of Drone Warfare: From the Ukrainian Front Lines to Mexican Cartels

April 23, 2024

The Rise of Drone Warfare: From the Ukrainian Front Lines to Mexican Cartels

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By Daniel Brunner | Chief Operating Officer | Brunner Sierra Group

As the world watched the conflict in Ukraine unfold, the use of drones emerged as a pivotal component in modern warfare. However, this technological advancement has now found a darker application beyond the battlefield. Notably, Mexican drug cartels, such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), have adopted similar drone technologies to enhance their illicit activities. This article explores the adaptation of drone warfare in cartel operations, its implications, and the potential threats it poses to law enforcement in the United States.

Surveillance and Monitoring

Initially, drones were predominantly used for surveillance and monitoring. In Ukraine, drones provided real-time data and a strategic overview of enemy movements and positions, a tactic that has been mirrored by cartels. Mexican drug cartels are now using drones to oversee their territories and monitor the movements of rival groups and law enforcement. This allows them to effectively manage their operations and evade capture, presenting significant challenges to maintaining security and order.

Offensive Capabilities

Taking a cue from military operations in Ukraine and the Middle East conflict, Mexican cartels have advanced their use of drones from mere surveillance tools to active combat assets. Reports indicate that the CJNG and other cartels have started to equip drones with explosives, effectively transforming them into remote-controlled bombs. These drones are used to target rival gang members, law enforcement officials, and government buildings, thereby increasing the lethality and reach of cartel violence without direct combat.

Escalation to Chemical Warfare

An alarming development in this adaptation of drone technology is the suspected use of chemical payloads. There have been instances where drones possibly carried chemical substances, adding a new layer of terror and complexity to cartel assaults. This tactic, though still under investigation, suggests a dangerous escalation in cartel warfare, mirroring some of the most feared aspects of international conflict.

Narcotics trafficking

Mexican drug cartels have innovatively adopted drone technology to smuggle narcotics across the U.S. border, circumventing traditional border security measures. By utilizing drones, these criminal organizations can transport small but significant quantities of drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine over the border with reduced risk of detection. These drones, often equipped with advanced GPS systems, are programmed to fly specific routes that minimize their exposure to law enforcement surveillance. This method not only enhances the efficiency of drug trafficking operations but also complicates the efforts of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies, which now must contend with aerial as well as terrestrial smuggling routes. As a result, the use of drones presents a formidable challenge in the ongoing battle against drug trafficking across the border.

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Anti-Drone Warfare

In response to the increasing threat posed by small drones, the U.S. military has intensified its training and development of anti-drone warfare capabilities. This training focuses on both detecting and neutralizing unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that could be used for surveillance, disruption, or as weapons. The military employs a variety of tactics, including electronic warfare techniques to jam or hijack drone communications, physical interception methods such as net guns, and advanced laser systems to shoot drones down. Additionally, troops are educated on the operational characteristics of different drone models to effectively identify and counter them. This comprehensive approach ensures that military personnel are prepared to tackle the diverse threats posed by small drones in modern combat and security operations, thereby safeguarding personnel, infrastructure, and critical national interests.

Implications for U.S. Law Enforcement

The proliferation of drone technology among criminal organizations poses a significant threat to U.S. law enforcement and national security. As seen in Ukraine, drones can offer a tactical advantage by providing a low-cost, high-efficiency method of conducting surveillance and direct attacks. If U.S. criminal groups begin to adopt these tactics, it could lead to an increase in the sophistication and deadliness of domestic criminal activities.

U.S. law enforcement agencies must consider the potential for drones to be used in cross-border criminal activities, including drug trafficking and targeted attacks. This necessitates a rethink of current security measures and the development of counter-drone technologies and strategies. There is also a need for legal frameworks that address the use of drones for criminal purposes, ensuring that law enforcement can act effectively while respecting civil liberties.

Link to the full report by Wall Street Journal

The adaptation of drone technology by Mexican cartels marks a significant shift in the landscape of organized crime. Inspired by military uses in conflicts like the Ukrainian war, cartels are now deploying these tools for surveillance, attacks, and potentially chemical warfare. This evolution in tactics not only enhances the capabilities of cartels but also poses new challenges for law enforcement agencies in Mexico and the United States. As drones become more accessible and their applications more advanced, the imperative for innovative countermeasures and robust policy responses becomes increasingly urgent.