LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It began as a routine operation: Mexican police were clearing blockades placed by organized crime groups in El Aguaje, a Western Mexico town that has become a battleground for drug cartels.
Suddenly, authorities said, a drone flew over, dropping a gunpowder bomb and wounding two members of the Michoacán state police force in the arms and legs.
The April attack underscored an emerging danger in the international fight against illegal drugs — weaponized drones.
Cartels such as the bloody and powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG, and its rival Cárteles Unidos, have upgraded their arsenals by using drones to bomb enemies, posing a growing threat to Mexican and U.S. citizens and allowing more drugs to flow into the United States.
Drones are part of the cartels’ larger strategy to achieve their aims by arming themselves like rogue militaries.
“I’ve been a strong advocate of designating the Mexican cartels as terrorist groups because they’re acting like terrorist groups. They’re equipped like terrorist groups. They’re distributing record levels of poisonous drugs in America,” said Derek Maltz, a former agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Special Operations Division.
“They’re going to use the latest and greatest technology” to defeat adversaries in Mexico, go after police and fight for territory that gives them better routes to funnel drugs into the United States, he said.
In an exclusive interview with The Courier Journal, which like USA TODAY is a part of the USA TODAY Network, one rookie drone operator with Cárteles Unidos, who did not want to give his name given the cartel’s criminal activities, said his organization has about 100 drones. Cartel members receive training on their use, he said, from a man nicknamed “Lord of the Skies.”
“He’s been training us since last year,” the cartel member said. “We have many drone models. They’re not too sophisticated but can carry a considerable amount of explosives.”
He said the drones “come legally from the U.S.” through “groups in Michoacán that support us and have legit money to buy the drones.”
The man said Cárteles Unidos deploys drones to keep watch over territory and sometimes to attack CJNG. He said neither his organization nor CJNG uses drones for trafficking drugs because it’s not worth the money or effort; drones are an inefficient way to carry the large volume of drugs CJNG exports to the United States.
CJNG — which is known for kidnappings, torture and murders in Mexico and the United States — is blamed for the spread of fentanyl, one of America’s deadliest illicit drugs.
CJNG and other Mexican cartels make fentanyl in clandestine laboratories and also produce and traffic “the overwhelming majority of the heroin available in the United States,” according to the DEA’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment.
The Mexican media accused CJNG of launching the April drone attack against police—a claim denied by an alleged CJNG member on Twitter. But Mexican Secretary of Defense Luis Cresencio Sandoval confirmed CJNG was to blame and said the person who used the drone was arrested.
Aguililla, the municipality containing El Aguaje where the attack occurred, has become a strategic hub for the production of methamphetamine. It’s also the birthplace of Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, also known as “El Mencho,” the most powerful drug lord in Mexico and leader of CJNG.
Shortly after the attack, the Associated Press reported, Papal Nuncio Mons. Franco Coppola visited Aguililla, offering a mass for residents and walking through the streets with an image of Christ “to symbolically reclaim roadways where dozens of bodies — some decapitated — have been left in recent months.”
The drone attack in El Aguaje was one of many in the past few years. CJNG has also been blamed for many attacks in Tepalcatepec in the Michoacán state, and one in Baja California, a Mexican state bordering the United States in which the cartel targeted the house of Public Security Secretary Gerardo Sosa Olachea.
During a briefing in Mexico City, Sandoval said such attacks are concerning, but “haven’t been as effective” as the cartels would like. He said the drones they are using can’t carry enough explosives to seriously harm a person or destroy a building.
But authorities are concerned cartels could get hold of more deadly devices in the future. They also worry some cartels may step up efforts to smuggle drugs across the border with drones; they say some are already using this tactic to bring marijuana and other drugs into the United States.
Cartels have also used drones for surveillance along the border. In the academic journal International Studies Perspective in 2018, researchers cited an expert who said cartels use drones to look for border patrol agents and inform drug smugglers of their positions.
As drones proliferate among cartels, public safety officials in Mexico are trying to curb their use. The office of Mexico’s attorney general has launched several investigations into terrorism by organized crime and has seized drones and C-4 explosives, which are commonly used in drone attacks.
Experts in Mexico and the United States worry more militarized cartels will mean more casualties in both countries, a more difficult battle for law enforcement and more drugs on American streets.
Earlier this month, government officials in both nations held talks in Mexico City’s Foreign Ministry to discuss a new joint security policy. A statement released by the foreign ministry said, “Mexico and the United States reaffirm the commitment to work together against transnational organized crime.”
The ministry said the two countries’ priorities include reducing arms, narcotics trafficking and violence caused by organized crime; addressing addiction as a public health problem; and attacking the finances of criminal organizations that operate in the two countries.
But judging by history, none of this will be easy.
Over the years, various strategies against organized crime have been implemented in Mexico with no success. Instead, the so-called war on drugs led to tens of thousands of deaths. Cartels only grew stronger and better able to supply the drugs fueling America’s drug epidemic.
And that epidemic kept taking more lives.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 81,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in the 12-month period ending May 2020 — the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded 12 months.
“They’re killing our citizens as we’ve never seen in the history of the country,” Maltz said.
Follow Karol Suárez on Twitter: @karolsuarez_