Mexican Federal Police arrested four men driving a stolen vehicle on Oct. 20 in Guanajuato, in Central Mexico, and in the car’s trunk, in a container next to an AK-47 variant rifle, they found a weapon that could soon change the nature of policing criminal gangs.
What they discovered was a remote-controlled flying drone that can be purchased online for around $229, yet fitted with a homemade bomb.
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The Mexican drug cartels can use the flying bombs for targeted assassinations, and the technology behind the bomb drone pulls from recent developments in homemade weapons by terrorist groups including the Colombian communist terror group FARC and ISIS.
The significance of the finding was pointed out in a recent report in Small Wars Journal—El Centro by senior fellows Dr. Robert Bunker and Dr. John Sullivan. In an email interview, Bunker said that such developments in cartel weaponry may be “inevitable.”
“A criminal insurgency has been raging in Mexico for over a decade now with well over 100,000 homicides taking place,” Bunker stated in the email, noting that the insurgency in Mexico blurs the lines between criminal activity and a war.
And recently in the conflict, Bunker notes, “What can be considered terrorist TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) have been increasingly coming into play, such as the use of human shields and now the fielding of a weaponized drone.”
The use of bomb drones is a trend. Drug cartels in Mexico have begun using drones to smuggle drugs across the border, and the Small Wars Journal report notes that between 2012 and 2014 the cartels made an estimated 150 intrusions with drones into the United States. They’ve also been using the drones at an increasing rate to gather information for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
The next trend is the explosive device found on the drone. It is what insurgents call a potato bomb, or “papas bombas,” or “Bombas de impacto,” which consists of explosive materials wrapped into a ball with shrapnel. The report notes the bombs have been used by the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación and by FARC.
At least four cases of papas bombas being used in attacks have been reported in Mexico since February.
The idea of strapping bombs like these onto drones is not a new concept, but it’s on the cutting edge of weapons used by terrorist groups. ISIS terrorists have used drones to carry and drop bombs on targets. The report states, “Such use is well known and has been identified in [ISIS] tactical actions taking place as early as December 2015 in Tishrin, Syria and June 2016 in Khan Touman, Syria.”
While Bunker notes it’s not yet certain if the four individuals arrested with the rifle and bomb drone were members of a cartel, the technology, other items seized in the arrest, and location of the arrest suggest they were.
Bunker notes that Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) has used such weapons, and the arrest was in Guanajuato, where CJNG is fighting for control against two other drug cartels, Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel.
“We are working under the assumption that this weaponized drone may be CJNG-linked but no evidence of such a confirmed linkage presently exists,” Bunker said.
Bunker stated that he spoke in Mexico City in June at an Armored Vehicle Latin America conference, where he raised the issue of the cartels using drones as weapons.
He said the use of weaponized drones would “immediately place Mexican state and federal police as well as the military on the defensive,” until they’re able to roll out technologies to counter the devices—technologies which the local authorities do not currently have.
Bunker notes the development is taking place in a region that has become a “petri dish” of cartels experimenting with new technologies and weapons. While the area is relatively far from the U.S.-Mexico border, “Such cartel technology use diffusion of course has the potential to spread north to the cartels and/or cartel factions operating in the borderlands.”
The U.S. government is aware of the growing threat and is already rolling out systems capable of countering drones.
According to the researchers, this development in counter-weapons was mainly due to ISIS and other terrorist organizations beginning to use drones in their attacks over the last few years.
With the cartels now going this route as well, however, Bunker notes that, moving forward, U.S. Border Patrol and Homeland Security agents “will of course want to begin tracking cartel drone use patterns if they are not already doing so.”