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Weaponized Drones in Mexico: Game-Changer or Gimmick?

JALISCO CARTEL / 6 MAY 2021 BY HIROTO SAITO EN

Bomb-strapped drones are the latest spectacular tactic employed by Mexico's crime groups to capture headlines. But the drones – commercially bought and packed with homemade explosives – are limited in their ability to cause damage.

The latest drone attack occurred May 4, when heavily armed men conducted an early morning road assault in Tepalcatepec, a municipality in southwestern Michoacán state, according to Proceso. The men, who residents said belonged to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), used drones laden with C4 explosives and shrapnel in the assault. No injuries were reported.

The CJNG has been involved in a spate similar drone assaults In recent months.

In late April, two officers were injured in a drone attack in Aguililla, a hotly contested area of Michoacán that has been overrun by the CJNG and its rivals, including the Cárteles Unidos.

SEE ALSO: How Organized Crime Networks Are Using Drones to Their Advantage

One officer was wounded in the arm and the other in the leg, according to authorities. The attack in Aguililla was the first in which a drone managed to cause injuries.

According to Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval González, explosive-laden drones have also been reported in Guanajuato, where the CJNG is waging an expansion campaign against the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel (CSRL), and in Jalisco, the CJNG's stronghold.

The CJNG, however, is not alone in weaponizing drones. Suspected members of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel were arrested in late April for allegedly building explosive drones.      

One of the first high-profile uses of weaponized drones in Mexico came in July 2018 in the border city of Tecate, Baja California. A coordinated attack by an unidentified group targeted the residence of Baja California’s then-Secretary of Public Security, Gerardo Sosa Olachea. Though one of the drones used in the attack was armed with an improvised explosive device, it never detonated. Some analysts suspected that the attack was meant more to intimidate than to cause actual damage.

To monitor and disable drones, Mexico’s Defense Ministry (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional — SEDENA) plans to employ an anti-drone system costing 215.7 million pesos (about $9.6 million), according to a September 21 El Universal report.

InSight Crime Analysis

The repeated use of weaponized drones indicates that criminal groups believe in this tactic's potential. But results show that explosive-laden drones are more likely to generate publicity than harm their intended targets.

The attack in Aguililla generated a healthy amount of media attention, with initial suspicions landing on the CJNG. However, the group subsequently released a video statement denying its involvement and casting the blame on rival Cárteles Unidos. An alleged source within the CJNG told Vice that the group was not to blame, and claimed that rival cartels wanted to stir controversy.

SEE ALSO: Are Armed Drones the Weapon of the Future for Mexico’s Cartels?

No matter which criminal group is behind the attacks, their drones are a long way from military-grade unmanned aircraft, equipped with missiles, that have been used extensively in drone strikes in the Middle East, including in Syria and in Yemen.

Examining photos, Mexican authorities have said that the attacks are being carried out with commercially available recreational drones, which are light and small.

Defense Secretary Sandoval has stated that the drones are unable to carry enough explosives to be effective weapons. For now, drones are still more useful to criminal groups as tools for surveillance and drug transport.

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