From surveillance to smuggling: Drones in the War on Drugs

by W. Alejandro Sanchez


This article is part of the Remote Control Warfare series, a collaboration with sustainablesecurity.org, a project of the Sustainable Security programme of Oxford Research Group. The views and opinions discussed in this series do not necessarily reflect the views of Oxford Research Group or the Remote Control project.


In Latin America drones are being used as part of the War on Drugs as both regional governments and the US are using surveillance drones to monitor drug trafficking and find smuggling routes. However, as drones are increasingly being used by drug cartels themselves to transport drugs between countries, could Latin America find itself at the forefront of emerging drone countermeasures?

In many Latin American countries, militaries operate as internal security forces because they combat drug traffickers and insurgencies. As a result, regional security agencies are constantly looking for new technologies to support security operations. Indeed, Peruvian Admiral José Cueto Aservi described purchasing drones in 2013 as necessary due to the “asymmetric war” being launched by narco-movement Shining Path that “takes advantage of the complex geography to attack” and thus “all methods” – including “technology” – are needed to defeat them.

Today, drones are regarded as potential “game changers” by regional security forces, believed to be invaluable “eyes in the sky” that will aid surveillance operations. Hence, it is no surprise that several Latin American countries have acquired them, whilst many others are producing them. At the same time, US drones are carrying out their own operations in Latin America as part of the global War on Drugs and drug cartels themselves have started using drones to smuggle drugs across international borders. As the use of drones looks set to increase, what is the likelihood of armed drones being used in this theatre and what implications could the non-state use of drones have on the region?

Drones in Latin America

There are currently at least 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries which have used or purchased drones. No Latin American state possesses large numbers of drones in the manner of the US military, rather, regional governments mostly operate just two or three drones of any type. Israel is the largest provider of drone technology to Latin America, having sold some $500 million worth to the region between 2005 and 2012.  Latin American states have also started developing their own drones with Colombia being the first South American nation to have home-built a drone, the Iris, in 2015.

Unarmed drones carry out Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) roles for a range of different operations in Latin America. Due to the region’s complex topography (a case in point is the Amazon, where drug traffickers from Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru operate) drones require special features like infrared cameras and have been useful for monitoring vast uninhabited spaces in the region. In Brazil, for example, drones have been used for agricultural reasons, including monitoring the Amazon rainforest. In Belize and Costa Rica too, drones have been used for conservation purposes. In Peru, a municipality police force in Lima,deployed three drones to patrol the Peruvian capital during the last Christmas season to help security officers locate emergency areas if necessary and in Mexico, drones have been used to patrol and secure sensitive areas like the facilities of the state oil company PEMEX.

Drones and the War on Drugs

Drones have also been used as part of the War on Drugs in Latin America. In Mexico, National Defense Secretariat, the Federal Police, the Procuradoría General de la República (the Attorney General’s office), as well as the Army and Air Force fly drones to gather intelligence to combat organized crime, mainly drug trafficking. In Brazil, Colombia, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago too, drones are used to monitor drug trafficking and find drug smuggling routes.

Drones are also being used by non-state actors, in the form of drug cartels, to smuggle drugs between countries. In January 2015, a drone crashed in a supermarket parking lot in Tijuana, Mexico –carrying three kilograms of crystal meth and in August 2015, two Mexican citizens were convicted of utilizing a UAV to fly 13 kilograms of heroin from Baja California, Mexico, into California.This led US authorities to deem drones an “emerging trend” employed by transnational criminal organizations to smuggle narcotics into the US.

In its long running War on Drugs, the US has also been using its own drones in Latin America. A New York Times article reported that, in 2011, in an effort to step up its involvement in Mexico’s drug war, the Obama administration begun sending its drones deep into Mexican territory to gather intelligence to help locate major traffickers. Furthermore, an official US briefing from 2011 – obtained via the Freedom of Information Act – revealed that the US Air Force is working to make its RQ-4 Global Hawk high altitude long endurance drones available to its allies in Latin America and the Caribbean in order to help “find drugs fields and helping plan offensives against rebel groups”.

US Customs and Border Protection operates 10 MQ-1 Predator drones, including two based in Cape Canaveral, Florida, that patrol a wide swatches of the Caribbean through the Bahamas and down to south of Puerto Rico as part of the drugs fight, and, in 2013, it was reported that the US Navy was testing a new type of drone that can be hand-launched from a ship’s deck to help detect, track and videotape drug smugglers in action across the Caribbean Sea.

US drones have also been used for other purposes in the region. US Customs and Border Protection have been flying surveillance drones for nearly a decade, launching them from bases in Texas, Florida, North Dakota and Arizona to detect illegal border-crossing. This activity has been called into question recently as a 2015 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found drones to be ineffective in conducting surveillance along the border.

Towards drone countermeasures?

As for the future, we can expect drones to continue to be utilized in Latin America, as there has been an increase in the purchasing and development of drones across the region in the last few years. US companies Boeing and Aerovironment, for example, have both declared their intention to increase drone sales to Latin America, with countries like Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru interested in purchasing from them and the Swedish firm Unmanned System Groups (USG), showcased its F-330 drone to the Uruguayan armed forces in late 2014.

More countries in the region are also looking to develop their own drones. Following the building of Colombia’s first drone in 2015, a COHA report found that Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil are all in the process of developing their own drones. There have also been talks of developing a South American drone, which would be manufactured by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR, which has as members all twelve South American states).

With regards to armed drones in the region, a number of states have indicated their desire for them. Peru and Colombia in particular could seek to acquire armed drones as internal security conditions worsen. However, this is unlikely to happen any time soon as countries that possess armed drones, such as the US and Israel, are unlikely to sell them to Latin America in the near future. Hence Latin American militaries would have to look to other potential suppliers, like China or Russia, or construct them themselves. Here, financial barriers, along with limited technological know-how capabilities, even amongst countries that already produce drones, would make this unlikely.

Even if armed drones are unlikely to be used in the region any time soon, there is a potential for Latin America to become a testing ground for drone technology in other ways.  As drones are being increasingly utilized by drug traffickers in the region to transport drugs between countries in ever more sophisticated ways, it is likely that this will lead to regional efforts to develop increasingly advanced drone-detection and interdiction technologies to defend against this threat. At present a number of companies internationally are developing this technology, used to detect, block and destroy drones. This includes the development of early warning systems that can identify and detect drones and signal jamming technology to block drone control frequencies. As well as this, technology is also being advanced to destroy detected drones. This includes both laser and kinetic defence systems, the later using missiles, rockets and bullets capable of shooting drones down. Companies are also looking into non-lethal projectile weapons that fire blunt force rounds, such as bean bags or rubber bullets, or small portable net guns that can ensnare drones. As Latin America finds itself battling against the hostile use of drones by drug cartels it could find itself at the forefront of these emerging drone countermeasures.

Image: A drone carrying illegal drugs crashed near a US border crossing in Mexico. Secretaría de Seguridad Pública Tijuana/Facebook

Read more from the Remote Warfare and War on Drugs series:

Drugs and drones: The Crime Empire strikes back

Privatising the war on drugs: PMSCs in Colombia and Mexico

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