Police in Mexico pulled over four men in a pickup truck near the city of Salamanca in Guanajuato state on October 20 and got a nasty surprise. Along with an AK-47 assault rifle, the men had in their possession an unmanned aerial vehicle fitted with a “large explosive device” and a remote detonator.
That’s right: a weaponized drone.
Police didn’t say whether they suspected the men of ties to drug cartels. But Guanajuato is currently contested by several drug gangs, including the Sinaloa cartel, Los Zetas, and Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG, according to Dr. Robert Bunker, a fellow with Small Wars Journal, a military trade publication.
In any event, it was inevitable that cartels would borrow a tactic from the Islamic State terror group and add bombs to off-the-shelf drones. “This has been expected for some time now,” Bunker told Motherboard.
Imagine cartel members assassinating each other, or law-enforcement officials, by steering an explosive-packed quadcopter toward the target’s head. ISIS, for its part, has deployed exploding “suicide drones” in attacks on Syrian and Iraqi troops and members of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.
Read more: The Islamic State Is Pioneering an Entirely New Type of Drone Warfare
ISIS set up factories in Iraq and Syria to modify mortar bombs—basically, small artillery shells—to fit on small drones. During intensive fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul in February, ISIS’s drones were “the main problem” for coalition troops, Captain Ali, an Iraqi officer, told War Is Boring.
The cartels, for their part, have been using so-called “potato bombs”—hand-grenade-size improvised explosive devices—in attacks on each other and authorities. Bunker said the explosive the police found alongside the drone in Guanajuato is “consistent” with a potato bomb.
For years cartels been using commercial UAVs to smuggle drugs. It’s a small step to smuggle a potato bomb or other explosive and detonate it. “That cartels would weaponize [drones], just like ISIS has done, is not surprising,” Peter W. Singer, author of Wired for War, told me.
The cartels could also draw inspiration from online-retailer Amazon and its delivery drones. “As both Islamic State and Amazon have shown, small drones are an efficient way of carrying a payload to a target,” said Nick Waters, a former British Army officer and independent drone expert. “Whether that payload is your new book or several hundred grams of explosive is up to the sender.”
But don’t panic, Waters and other experts said. Drug cartels were plenty dangerous before they weaponized flying robots. Potato bomb-hauling drones might just give narcos more options for perpetrating crimes they are perfectly capable of pulling off some other way. “Considering their already impressive traditional capability, I think this will probably be another tool rather than a game-changing capability,” Waters said.
You should be “no more worried than you should be by cartels also using machine guns, car bombs, machetes, etc,” Singer said.
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