Economy & Business

Drones in Our Future

Predator drones operated by Customs and Border Protection.
On our border with Mexico, both drug smugglers and the CBP use them.

As multi-billion-dollar international conglomerates intent on smuggling drugs, people, and other contraband across America’s southern border, drug cartels are always looking for the newest and best technology to help move their product. And the smugglers have come a long way from the days when border tunnels and small private planes were state-of-the-art. Their latest innovation: drones.  

Drones by definition do not need an on-board pilot. This means that drones can be far smaller than manned aircraft — and that in the case of a crash, there is no one on board to be killed, or captured and interrogated.

A recent incident on the Mexican side of the United States’ southern border has shed new light on how drones are being used by both sides in the War on Drugs. Late last month a drone overloaded with meth crash-landed in a supermarket parking lot in Tijuana, Mexico, less than half a mile from the border, and was recovered by Mexican law-enforcement officials. The drone’s existence provides a rare glimpse of the constantly evolving tactics of transnational smugglers, and it also raises questions about the U.S. federal government’s surveillance of the border. The U.S. law-enforcement agencies in charge of policing the border claim to be ready for any threat posed by drones. But they also operate a poorly managed drone program of their own that has drawn heavy criticism from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

Special Agent Matt Barden of the Drug Enforcement Agency says the DEA does not take the proliferation of drones lightly; along with its counterparts in Mexico, the agency is studying the crashed-drone incident. However, Barden adds that this is not the first time the DEA has discovered that drones have been used to move drugs undetected. “This is something that’s not new,” he explains. “We’ve heard about this, but more prominently with people trying to get a small amount of drugs or contraband into a prison or some confines of a locked or guarded facility — trying to get stuff in or out.”

The biggest concerns about cartel-operated drones, Barden says, have nothing to do with the actual movements of drugs. “Is it a good way to get some dope out of the woods or out of the jungle to a waiting car or vehicle? Yeah,” Barden says. “Better yet, to me personally, is it a better way to perform surveillance on law enforcement? Absolutely. That scares me a whole lot more than does the smuggling aspect of it.” He adds that if DEA agents encountered drones that could expose a confidential mission or jeopardize their safety, the agents would use discretion but would bring the drones down as swiftly as possible.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, on the other hand, is downplaying concerns about the potential for growing use of unmanned aircraft at the border. “To date, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not intercepted any drones smuggling narcotics across the borders into the United States,” CBP spokesman Carlos Lazo said in a statement. “In collaboration with our federal, state, local and international law enforcement partners, CBP remains vigilant against emerging trends and ever-changing tactics employed by transnational criminal organizations behind illegal attempts to smuggle narcotics into the U.S.”

Outwardly, the Border Patrol appears to be ready for drone-powered drug smugglers. Border Patrol agents would not comment on the counter-measures the agency might employ to combat drones that are threatening its agents or being used in the commission of crimes. But the Border Patrol has an arsenal of drones of its own. The agency’s Unmanned Aircraft System has a fleet of nine Predator B drones that can fly for 20 hours straight and travel at speeds up to 276 miles per hour to help secure the nation’s border. Predator B drones, which are also used by the military, are much more sophisticated and powerful than the drone that crashed in Mexico. The drug-smuggling drone was much smaller, slower, and less durable than the top-dollar equipment paid for by American taxpayers.

But while, on its face, the Border Patrol’s drone program gives the agency a firm technological advantage over the cartels, DHS’s inspector general recently concluded that the program has been poorly managed for several years. Near the end of last year, the IG issued a report saying that the Border Patrol could not prove that its program was effective, because the agency had failed over the last eight years to develop performance measures. The report revealed that the program cost nearly $10,000 more per hour of flying time than DHS claimed and that, while the Predator B drones were expected to fly over the border 16 hours a day, 365 days a year, the aircraft were actually airborne just over 3.5 hours a day on average. The Border Patrol agreed with the IG’s conclusions and recommendations in principle, but then issued its own report disagreeing with the findings.

When drones become the subject of bad news, as with the crash in Tijuana, the fledgling commercial drone industry suffers. Brendan Schulman, an attorney who leads the commercial-drone division of the New York–based law firm of Kramer Levin, says he is worried that misconceptions about drones could lead to stifling regulations.

“The use of drones by criminal enterprises is still a relatively new phenomenon, so while we’ve read the occasional story about drugs at the border or contraband being dropped behind prison walls, I think it’s still an unusual way to try to deliver contraband,” Schulman says. “This is still the early days of civilian drone technology and . . . what I hope we don’t see on a federal level is an overreaction.”

How federal and local law-enforcement officers plan to incorporate drones into their daily activities remains to be seen, but drone technology appears poised to become an integral part of protecting the nation’s borders — if the Border Patrol cleans up its act.

— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review.

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