Mexico’s deadly drug cartels are among the most feared in the world — they will conduct brazen attacks anywhere — including downtown Mexico City — to kill a target they deem in their way, or just out of revenge.
Notoriously well armed and equipped, some even possess heavy weaponry, including armored gun trucks and heavy machine guns — and they have no compunction to use them.
Now, at least one of these groups — the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) — appears to be using weaponized consumer drones in their latest gang war, according to Forbes magazine, citing reports in El Universal and other local news media.
A citizens’ militia group in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán, formed to protect farmers from the cartel, found two drones in a car used by gunmen belonging to the CJNG, a group estimated to control a third of the drugs consumed in the US.
The drones had plastic containers taped to them filled with C4 explosive and ball bearing shrapnel. The militias say that they have heard explosions, and believe that the drones are the latest weapons in an ongoing gang war, Forbes reported.
“The CJNG has been involved with such devices since late 2017 in various regions of Mexico,” says analyst Robert J Bunker, Director of Research and Analysis at C/O Futures, LLC.
“This cartel is well on its way to institutionalizing the use of weaponized drones. None of the other cartels appear to presently even be experimenting with the weaponization of these devices.”
In 2017, Bunker reported on the arrest of four CJNG members with a drone carrying a “papa bomba” (potato bomb), an improvised hand grenade.
In 2018 an armed drone attacked the residence of a senior official in Baja, California. The official was not at home, and the attack seems to have been intended as a warning, Forbes reported.
Three CNJG drones with explosive were recovered this year, part of an arsenal for use against the rival Rosa de Lima cartel.
Bunker says that suitable consumer drones are now easy to acquire and use, but that the challenge is weaponizing them.
“The limiting factor is not so much the availability of military grade explosives — commercial or homemade explosives can be substituted — but the basic technical knowledge necessary to create improvised explosive devices or IEDs,” says Bunker.
The Mexican drones appeared to be wired for remote detonation in kamikaze attacks. They are similar to the jury-rigged quadcopters used in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against President Maduro of Venezuela in 2018, Forbes reported.
They are less sophisticated than the bomber drones used by ISIS and other groups in the Middle East since 2016 which drop modified 40mm grenades with great precision, used with deadly effect against Iraqi government forces.
Such drones are now widespread in the Middle East. Their absence in Mexico may be because the cartels do not have access to these munitions, Forbes reported.
The US military makes extensive use of portable kamikaze drones, which it terms “loitering munitions,” in particular the SwitchBlade made by Californian company AeroVironmens. This has night vision, the ability to lock on to a target and a silent attack mode, as well as an advanced precision warhead.
“Improvised drone bomb designs for terrorist and criminal organizations are still relatively unsophisticated from a nation-state and future potentials perspective,” says Bunker. “This is due to both the lack of technical sophistication of their bomb makers and the lack of computer, data/signals, and command and control expertise of their pilots.”
In a parallel development, the cartels have shown considerable ingenuity in adapting commercial drones for smuggling drugs over the US border.
Mexican cartels have now progressed their own smuggling drones from commercial components, which can carry over a hundred pounds of drugs in one trip: the perfect drug mule, they are expendable and will never talk to the authorities.
This type of innovation – which has also brought the boom in “narco-submarines” — may see more advanced drone weapons being fielded as the CJNG escalates the war against its rivals.
The group makes free use of military-style weaponry; in July it released a video of a long convoy of heavily-armed, armored vehicles.
These personnel, who all shouted of the nickname of their top boss, Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, throughout the footage, reportedly belong to a “special forces” contingent within the cartel’s overall force structure, TheDrive reported.
This video followed a failed CJNG assassination attempt against Mexico City’s police chief Omar Garcia Harfuch in June. Harfuch was wounded in the brazen shootout and two of his bodyguard’s died.
This reality has left the United States, among others, scrambling to catch up when it comes to developing countermeasures. The US military, as a whole, has been investigating a wide array of different counter-drone technologies, ranging from jammers to directed-energy weapons, including both lasers and high-powered microwave beams.
“I argue all the time with my Air Force friends that the future of flight is vertical and it’s unmanned,” US Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said at a public event in June.
“I’m not talking about large unmanned platforms … I’m talking about the one you can go out and buy at Costco right now in the United States for a thousand dollars, four quad, rotorcraft, or something like that that can be launched and flown,” he added. “And with very simple modifications, it can make made into something that can drop a weapon like a hand grenade or something else.”
The US Department of Homeland Security identified the need for some kind of mobile counter-drone capability as an “emerging requirement” just this week.
Reports from Tepalcatepec suggest that the cartels are upping their drone game but Bunker doubts they would carry out drone attacks on Mexican police or military or public officials, because of the risk of retaliation from the Mexican government with the weight of the US DEA — known as “the three letters” — behind it.
But a new type of gang warfare is clearly evolving in Mexico – and it’s going to get worse.