Could Drones Fall Into the Hands of Drug Cartels?

Recent cases of criminals using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or "drones," to smuggle narcotics and spy on marijuana growers has raised the possibility that these could become widely utilized in the criminal world. Will it be long before large drug cartels begin operating these devices?

In a recent article, the Halesowen News highlighted how a criminal gang in the West Midlands, United Kingdom, were flying small drones to detect and burgle cannabis farms in the area. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one of the criminals involved in the operations told the newspaper just how easy it was to carry out: "I bought my first drone for a few hundred quid and learnt to fly it over wasteland," he said, before adding how he had purchased a second-hand heat seeking camera - similar to the ones police forces use - for the device in order to pick up on the hydroponic grow lights of cannabis farms. Once discovered, stealing from the farms or imposing a tax is straight forward, he stated, since growers won't report the theft due to the illegality of their own operations.

This example is not isolated and a number of cases have appeared in the global media in recent years. Just last month, for example, two men were arrested in different incidents after they had been found using small drones to try and smuggle drugs into prisons in Australia and Brazil, reported USA Today.

Since these stories show how key drones can be in the drug trafficking world - used both as intelligence support and as drug carriers - they inevitably raise concerns over large-scale misuse of UAVs by civilians. Perhaps the most pressing question in this topic is: will drone technology fall into the hands of larger drug trafficking operations and represent a game changer in the drug trade?

The answer, with regards to the immediate future, appears to be no. Time Magazine and The Miami Herald have both covered this topic in the past 3 years, with the latter suggesting it is simply a matter of time before we see Mexican drug cartels flying surveillance drones to identify weak spots on the US border. However, there is a need to differentiate between small-scale drones highlighted in the aforementioned cases, and military-grade UAVs that governments deploy. As the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) rightly pointed out in a January 2014 report, Latin America's major drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) may have shown a willingness to adapt to new technology and have the monetary means to acquire it, yet setting up, operating and maintaining a drone capable of complex border surveillance is another matter altogether. Doing this requires well-trained professionals, meaning simply obtaining the technology will not in and of itself lead to its impactful deployment.

Furthermore. large DTOs typically rely on networks of informants and corrupt officials in the trafficking of narcotics. As the continued success of their trafficking operations attests to, there is little need to tamper with this system. This is not to say, of course, that adding aerial surveillance would be detrimental, but the enormous financial cost it would incur is likely not something a cartel would be willing to take on, particularly if deemed superfluous to requirements. 

For the moment, this aerial advantage will remain very much in the domain of governments who have intensified their use of drones to counter the international drug trade. In 2012, the deployment of several UAVs in a joint operation between Bolivia and Brazil led to the dismantling of over 240 drug labs, according to Bolivian officials, while the United States began sending its remote-controlled vehicles into Mexico in 2011 to locate drug kingpins and gather intelligence regarding their networks. These kind of law enforcement operations are only increasing as the proliferation of drones continues throughout the Americas. 

The threat of drones being used for criminal purposes is real, but isolated to small-time operations for now. Given the need for sophisticated drone technology in large-scale trafficking operations, it seems likely that major criminal players will eschew UAVs in favor of their tried and tested methods.