A violent Mexican drug cartel has just created an elite unit of drone operators which will convert commercially available drones into flying bombs to use against rival cartels and Mexican authorities.
The latest effort by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), as detailed by U.S. security analysts, Mexican officials and cartel members told The Daily Beast, began four years ago and is now moving into the operational phase.
“We began training as a group in 2021, but only this year we started operating,” a Jalisco Cartel New Generation member of the Operadores Droneros (Drone Operators) told The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity.
The cartel member said the drone group is primarily dedicated to locating and attacking rivals, including Los Viagras, Knights Templar in Michoacán, and the Sinaloa Cartel. But, can also be used to surveil police, other enemies, or mountainous or wooded areas that are difficult to access.
“It depends on which drone we use, but we can be miles away and confirm that they [rivals] are at a certain house or vehicle and then crash the drone with the explosives,” he said.
Cartel hitmen operating drones were identified by security analysts after photos were posted to social media showing the men wearing bulletproof vests that featured a patch with the CJNG initials on it, identifying the men as members of the group.
Drones are a status symbol for young members of drug cartels and weaponizing them is a rather easy task.
“The use of drones is absolutely an element of power and status,” Chris Dalby, the managing editor of InSight Crime, an investigative website focused on organized crime, told El País. “It’s a very strong symbol that you have money, and there is a lot of money in Michoacán.”
He added: “The Jalisco Cartel has a very good understanding of the effectiveness of marketing. [Drones] are a very ineffective way of killing compared to conventional firearms and explosives. However, for the people who were in Tepalcatepec, being bombed from the air was very traumatic. Locally, in the areas they are used, they can be a very effective weapon of intimidation.”
#Michoacan – Drones. 2021, Tierra Caliente
Me mostraban drones modificados y cargas explosivas. Hay pilotos "instructores". El dron es arma, herramienta táctica (pero tmb juego, moda, chiste)
— Romain Le Cour (@romainlecour) January 12, 2022
“Indeed, the drones used by the cartels are not drones designed for combat, but rather commercial products that anyone with enough money can buy online for a few hundred dollars. From there, it is not difficult to turn the drone into a weapon,” Cecelia Farfán Méndez told El País. “A hook that can be controlled remotely from a cellphone is added to the drone, and then a bomb is placed on it. A plastic cup is stuck to the bomb with duct tape, which acts as a kind of parachute and gives it the appearance of a badminton shuttlecock. Once the drone is over the target, the bomb is released.”
Mexican targets are not the only ones attracting the attention of cartel drone operators.
From 2021 through the beginning of 2022, cartels conducted more than 9,000 drone flights into U.S. airspace to spy on federal authorities conducting operations near the U.S. southern border.