There are legions of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, and they do not belong to the United States. They are owned and operated by Mexican drug cartels, and there’s nothing we can currently do to stop them.
The proliferation of small, cheap UAVs (aka drones) has raised a litany of security concerns, from interference with commercial aviation to possible delivery systems for weapons. Along the U.S. southern border, the Mexican cartels are operating drones as intelligence gathering tools. Cartels traditionally have employed falcones (Spanish for falcons)—people who perch on points along the border to monitor border patrol movements, collecting information that smugglers could exploit to outmaneuver America’s border security efforts.
Mexican cartels and criminals are operating with impunity, and it is having a definite impact on the volume of drug smuggling and illegal immigration. What steps are we going to take to address this fast-growing, fast-flying problem?
- Nelson Balido
Today, those falcones are in the process of being replaced with a fleet of drones that fly along the U.S.-Mexico border, giving comprehensive real-time intelligence to smugglers on the location and movement of border patrol and other law enforcement officers and vulnerabilities in our border security infrastructure. This presents a long list of fatal challenges for all of America’s border security efforts. Foremost among them:
* With constant, real-time video of the U.S.-Mexico border, drug smugglers, human traffickers and others can simply identify the areas where law enforcement agents are not operating and cue an illegal crossing at those points. That easily defeats all of our randomized patrols and quick-response capabilities.
* Knowing where our patrol efforts are temporarily weakest, cartels and others can send a UAV with a payload of narcotics into the United States. They don’t even need to worry about the mechanics of dropping cargo and bringing the drone back. The drug payload is worth tens or even hundreds of times more than the UAV, making the drone more or less disposable. This scenario has been occurring since 2010, and in April last year, a drone carrying 28 pounds of heroin crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Calexico, California.
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* With aerial video, criminals on the Mexican side could record identifying features of the law enforcement officers themselves and target them (or their loved ones) for violence. We cannot allow gangs of violent criminals to accumulate a photo roster of our dedicated agents who are already risking their lives to protect the border.
These serious implications for cartel-run UAVs are concerning enough, but more troubling still is that the United States has no capacity to stop them.
What options do we have? A sharpshooter with a long-range rifle could attempt to shoot down the drones, but given the size of the target and the speed at which it can travel and change direction, there is a good chance there will be missed shots, and who could say where that errant bullet might land or what it might strike?
The Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine has told the Border Patrol they cannot take steps of their own because airspace is their exclusive domain. For years, the Border Patrol has tried to obtain small UAVs for themselves that they could launch from the back of pickup trucks to do their own reconnaissance. Yet, currently, Air and Marine can only bring helicopters to bear. The result is that they would be using extremely high-powered machine guns on airships costing more than $1,500 an hour plus crew to try and take down a very nimble and low-flying UAV worth a fraction of that cost, to say nothing of the missed shots that would hail bullets on the ground below. This is the equivalent of bringing a Hellfire missile when all you need is a fly-swatter.
Some might think we can track the drones and trace them back to their operator. However, cartels have been sending much larger, manned ultra-light planes across the border for years, and we have a hard time even tracking those. If we can’t always track a plane, we have no hope of keeping tabs on a legion fast, low-flying drones.
Perhaps more adventurously, we could consider some sort of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) device that fries the UAVs’ circuits, but that would likely take out some of America’s border security technology in the process, and it would bring unforeseeable but certain unintended consequences.
And even if we did have some innovative response to this massive problem, U.S. Border Patrol agents cannot launch and use what they don’t have. Given woefully insufficient attention and budget from Washington, there’s no reason to believe new technology to address this situation is coming soon.
The result is the United States has no means by which to counter the criminal use of UAV activities along the border. Meanwhile, the cartels and other criminal organizations do have a way to counter American UAVs. It has been reported that some of the UAVs American law enforcement are using for operations lack critical security modules that can prevent “GPS spoofing;” that is, a simple cyberattack that sends the UAV incorrect GPS coordinates, causing it to fly away from its intended route.
This is bad all the way around. Mexican cartels and criminals are operating with impunity, and it is having a definite impact on the volume of drug smuggling and illegal immigration. What steps are we going to take to address this fast-growing, fast-flying problem? I have no idea.
And frankly, neither does anyone else.
Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido