Border Patrol Faces Drug-Smuggling Drones

Apr 24, 2017

Monitoring the U.S./Mexico border for drug smuggling activity is one of the charges of the U.S. Border Patrol.  This task has been made that much more difficult in the technological age.  Maya Springhawk Robnett of the Arizona Science Desk reports…

What may sound like the buzzing of bees is, in actuality, an unmanned aerial vehicle, also known (appropriately) as a drone.  Drones can be can be used in agriculture, to observe whales, to monitor wildlife populations, or to deliver packages for companies like Amazon. 

But drones have other uses.

The San Luis border fence is a triple-decker, 18-foot-tall barrier between San Luis, Arizona and San Luis, Rio Colorado in Mexico.

Alan Guevara with the San Luis Police Department stood on the American side of the fence on a bright Arizona morning.  “We were just patrolling.  You know, it was a night, a regular night.  We started getting calls from people, you know, they’re hearing a buzzing sound in the air on top of them but they couldn’t see anything,” Guevara said.

Drug-smuggling drone
Credit Image captured by Yuma Sector Border Patrol, 2016

In April of last year, Guevara was on duty during one of the first known incidents involving a drug smuggling drone in San Luis, Arizona.  It was heard near the port of entry—the city’s Main Street.

It was a night, a regular night. We started getting calls from people, you know...hearing a buzzing sound in the air on top of them. But they couldn't see anything. - Alan Guevara, SLPD

"Mainly it was on the area of Circle K, which is Main Street," Guevara gestured North.  "So people started calling in and that’s when we started going, like: something’s going on.  A lot of people are calling for the same thing.  And they could hear the direction the drone was traveling and it was traveling North and then it would travel eastbound into the residential area.”

SLPD communicated with the U.S. Border Patrol and, according to Guevara, that's not uncommon: “We work a lot with Border Patrol because if we need back up or they need back up, we’re so close that we help each other out.”

The drone wasn’t easy to see in the night; the lights usually seen on recreational drones were not present.

Agent Fidel Cabrera is with the Yuma Sector Border Patrol.  “Usually," Cabrera illustrated, "the way they work this smuggling method is there will be people on both sides of the border, you know, and they can either both control the drone or one person’s there just for the pick-up and drop-off purposes.”

Recreational drones have only recently been used by drug smugglers as a tool to send contraband over border walls.  But Agent Cabrera said this method has its limitations; it is generally only used from city to city over border barriers.  He said going across the desert to drop drugs just wouldn’t make sense…

“It’s not in their best interests to send a drone out in the middle of the desert and have it land in the middle of nowhere and hope that somebody will come down and pick it up," Cabrera said.  "It’s a lot easier, in like in the area that we’re in right now, to go from building to building or from house to house.”

Moreover, Tom McMahon with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said small recreational drones such as those being used by drug smugglers simply can’t fly from miles away to drop contraband into the U.S.; a small drone, for the most part, can only be flown as far as the operator can see it. 

“The way that the aircraft platforms operate, it’s very similar to what we use for WiFi.  So the signal doesn’t go that far," McMahon said.  "It just depends on the situation that you’re in, depends on the weather conditions, how far the signal will go.”

Yuma Sector agents won’t say too much about drones on the border.  Agent Justin Kallinger said it would give too much away.  “That’s something we just don’t talk about," Kallinger explained.  "If we start giving out the particulars on how we apprehend things and do that, then we’ve kind of defeated the whole purpose.”

Other than the event last April, the Yuma Sector Border Patrol is vague about how many drones have been apprehended and would not comment on how many drone incidents have been detected in the Yuma Sector in total.