The commercial drone that crashed in a parking lot near Tijuana, Mexico carrying six pounds of meth has garnered a wealth of media attention in just 24 hours. Most of it inflating what is likely, for the world’s most powerful drug lords, child’s play.
Cartels have succeeded in building the most sophisticated drug trafficking scheme in America, one that rakes in more than $20 billion in cash each year. Drones have not gotten them there—and, as evidenced by this failure, probably won’t.
“It never made it across the border, crashed a quarter mile south of the San Pedro port of entry,” DEA Special Agent Matt Barden tells The Daily Beast. “News organizations reporting that it was a successful incursion were inaccurate.”
Barden, a 27-year veteran of the law enforcement agency, is careful not to completely disregard the bust. “We are concerned about the human factor. If you’re a family dealing with a meth addict, or in a neighborhood plagued by meth addiction, then six pounds is a lot,” he says. “But when you’re a cartel that transfers hundreds of thousands of pounds of drugs, six isn’t even worth your effort.”
The drone was a failure that they won’t likely repeat. “Let’s face it, the drone [couldn’t] even carry six pounds.” Some authorities are hypothesizing that this may have even just been a personal delivery, or a favor. Either way, it surely wasn’t a priority for an organization that killed 60,000 people in Mexico from 2006-2012 and murdered more than 16,000 in 2013 alone. “Drones are not something we see cartels using,” says Barden.
So what does the DEA see cartels using to carry out their mission? In a word: everything. “Anything that you put something else inside of they’ll put drugs in,” says Barden. “If there’s a way to do it, they’ve done it.” The 2006 case of Colombians surgically inserting heroin into puppies, or cartels sewing $864K of meth into Elmo dolls are the first that come to his mind. But there are countless more, ranging from cocaine-filled breast implants to a Mr. Potato head stuffed with ecstasy.
All of the attempts are part of one big game, says Barden, one that revolves around money and too often ends with violence. “Ultimately, you want as much product here, with as little risk as necessary. You want to get it to your distribution point and then get the most money possible,” he says. “That’s the name of the game.”
Cartels attempts to swallow, sew, and cram drugs into America through various vessels are likely not the way that they get the bulk of their product onto our shores. It’s mass cargo, either via flight or truck, where the DEA makes the biggest seizures. Last summer the DEA cracked down on one such operation, where the cartels disguised liquid meth (like in one example, to fill tequila bottles.)
When thought of this way, the concept that cartels may soon employ drones as their new trafficking method looks exceptionally silly. Last year, one single truck carrying liquid meth allowed them to transport upwards of 250 gallons (1,250 pounds of crystals). Using a drone for the same load would necessitate more than 208 trips. “When you’re talking about an enormous amount that you could carry in a gas tank, why would you fly 6 pounds?” says Barden.
However the cartels get the drugs inside, it’s working. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Americans spend an estimated $65 billion per year on illegal drugs. The DEA successfully seizes just $1 billion. With unending funds and manpower, Barden says the cartels can watch the DEA’s every move. “When you can sit around and all you do is think about ways of beating us, you have an advantage.”
It’s the cartels constant ability to adapt to the DEA’s next move that Barden says makes the drones significant. While the aircraft has proven to fragile for carrying loads of drugs, it has a record of success for surveillance. “I’m more concerned personally and officer safety-wise about what the drones would mean in a tactical situation for the safety of agents and officers that protect our border,” he says. “It’s a tremendous tactical disadvantage to have those flying above you.”