From Narco to ‘coyote’: the Latin American crime world reinvents the use of the drone

From Narco to 'coyote': the Latin American crime world reinvents the use of the drone
A drone during a fumigation test of illicit crops in Colombia. (EFE)

In Latin America, a technological battle has been unleashed between criminal groups and the authorities around drones, which are used both for surveillance and attacks

In the depths of the Peruvian Amazon is the small indigenous community of Buen Jardín del Callarú, just a row of humble homes after a bend in the river. They are built on a wooden platform, and when the river grows, in the rainy season, the water reaches almost the thresholds, so to go from house to house you have to travel by boat or swimming. Buen Jardín is inhabited by some 275 people of the Ticuna ethnic group. The town sits an Amazonian area near the triple border between Peru, Colombia and Brazil, co-opted by illicit economies such as coca trafficking and illegal logging. Both generate deforestation.

It is difficult for Ticuna to fight illegal logging, which has forever changed the landscape of other neighbouring communities. “Our jungle is becoming pampa,” says Pablo García Akawasa, former ‘APU’ of the community. The territory is extensive and, often, almost inaccessible. Therefore, with the help of the American NGO Rainforest Foundation, they have been trained in the use of a new tool: drones.

The Ticuna open some black bags in the middle of the jungle, take out the small devices, and put them to fly. They have already made a mapping of the territory of the community, and if the drones detect any change, an alert will be sent to the competent authorities. “Thanks to the drones, it is easier for us to see if someone is deteriorating our forest and secretly cutting down our wood,” says García Akawasa.

Drones for the ‘narco’

But drug trafficking groups are also making use of this new technology. The drones, which serve the Ticuna to defend their territory, are taking center stage in drug trafficking and in the Colombian armed conflict, both for the authorities and for the smugglers.

“Drone technology has become accessible to many non-governmental groups, including criminal groups“, explains Mark Cancian, senior advisor to the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to Revyuh.

“They are not the sophisticated drones used by the United States with long-range weapons. They are commercially available drones that have been adapted for other purposes. Anyone can go to a store to buy one. They are much more limited than military drones, but they can be useful for carrying light loads, which can be messages, drugs or mobile phones. These small changes can also be weapons such as a grenade or small explosives to attack very specific targets”, the analyst considers.

The National Liberation Army (ELN) militia, as well as the dissidents of the dissolved Farc and the Mexican cartels present in Colombia already use them to collect intelligence information on local security forces, monitor drug shipments or monitor routes of drug trafficking.

International drug transport

In addition, some groups would also have moved the small devices using coca, since many can carry five kilos or more of cargo.

In 2016, Colombian police found a drug hiding place on the beaches of Bahía Solano. It is a tourist spot, located on the Pacific coast and not far from the border with Panama. In the ‘Caleta’, as those hidden places are known in the coffee country, there were at least 130 kilos of coca, but also pieces of a very powerful drone, with a flight range of about 100 kilometers. They assumed that the purpose of the device was to introduce the drug into Panama.

“The drone was used to take cocaine to Panama. It had the capacity to transport ten kilos on each trip,” said General José Acevedo, regional police commander.

Drones with explosives

The stupor of the authorities was maximum when, in September of this year, they were made with two drones, loaded with 600 grams of plastic explosive, in addition to shrapnel (screws, nails and nuts), in the surroundings of Tumaco, a coca-growing area of ​​the South of Colombia The explosion of the charge contained in the devices would have caused a wave of at least 20 meters around when they had crashed into their target.

The devices would be owned by the Oliver Sinisterra Front, a violent group of FARC dissidents who, according to the authorities, engage in drug trafficking. The Army believes that the intention of the FOS was to attack troops of the armed forces and the civilian population.

At the service of the ‘coyote’

“The drones are not going to revolutionize the Colombian armed conflict because their capabilities are still limited. However, they can be used as instruments of terror or murder,” says Cancian.

The drug cartels in Mexico also use small flying devices to monitor their cargo and the authorities.

In the North American country, groups outside the law also use drones to trace routes and detect vulnerabilities on the US border. Not only to cross drugs but also to allow migrants to pass when there is no public force in the surroundings. US authorities have recorded an increase in the number of those flights, according to Forbes magazine.

“Drones are sold commercially and there is no way to prevent criminal groups from accessing them”, says the analyst.

Attack against Maduro

The small devices have been used even in cases of alleged attempted assassination.

On August 4, 2018, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gave a speech at the central Avenida Bolívar in Caracas. Suddenly, two explosions sounded, and the crowd that attended the event, mostly military, ran away. A few minutes later it was learned that two drones had exploded a few meters from the Venezuelan president, after being intercepted by guards who detonated them prematurely.

Maduro declared that they had tried to assassinate him, and blamed Colombia for being behind the alleged attack. Bogotá denied having anything to do, and part of the public opinion considered the action as a ‘false flag’ attack.

But the US news network CNÑ, managed to speak, in March this year, with the alleged organizer of the action, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The character said the attack had been prepared by defectors from the Venezuelan Army and others, discharging Colombia from responsibility, although he admitted that the action was prepared in the neighbouring country. He also said that the plan was carried out with a commercial drone, purchased online and assembled by hand including the explosives inside.

Antinarcotics catches up

Authorities in several Latin American countries have started a race to catch up with drones in the face of increased use by illegal smuggling groups. “The Colombian armed forces should consider buying anti-drone weapons, which are being developed now and reaching the markets. Some of these weapons interfere with the electrical communication between the base and the drone, and others shoot the drones and shoot them down”, recommends the analyst Cancian.

The ideal areas for the use of drones are search and rescue, intelligence and recognition. Drone technology, moreover, is not expensive with respect to its added value.

Several countries in the region, such as Chile or Argentina, already use the devices to monitor their borders. Experts believe that, soon, all countries will start using drones to control access to their territory.

The Colombian authorities, for example, use drones to carry out preliminary monitoring of the areas where their agents are going to eradicate coca plantations, with the aim of avoiding surprise attacks by traffickers.

The Government of the Antioquia region even carried out, as a test in October 2018, several fumigations with the controversial pesticide glyphosate directly with drones, instead of employing members of the public force.

The advantages of drones are clear when it comes to preventing attacks, but also antipersonnel mines placed by criminal groups to surprise ‘eradicators’. Several people have died from stepping on explosive devices while destroying coca plantations in recent years.

But the speed and performance of the drones at the time of fumigation were not as expected.

“We had some goals in terms of deadlines, but we took several more days than planned for maintenance and damage to the drones and also for the slow process”, says Lila Marcela de Los Ríos, manager of Coca Free Antioquia. “The topography of the region is highly broken and the crops are scattered. By logistics, it was essential to use a helicopter”, she explains.

“Another problem was the charging of batteries. It always took eight hours. For safety, in our camps, all systems must be turned off at six in the afternoon, including power plants. If they finished fumigating or eradicating at four in the afternoon, the next day they had to spend all their time charging the batteries because there was no more time left”, adds the manager of Coca Free Antioquia.

She also warns that criminal groups are taking drone technology very seriously.

“They are much more advanced than us. They invest a lot in research and development. Not only in plant genetics, so that they are more resistant or produce more. We have also seen how drones are being used to hack border information systems, to be able to enter the drug, and also to put narcotics and money in prisons”, she says.

In Latin America, a technological battle has been unleashed between criminal groups and the authorities around a technology whose industry, according to US consultancy Price WaterhouseCoopers, could move $ 127 billion in 2020.