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Column 020915 Wall

Monday, February 9, 2015

Using Drones and Magnets, Drug Smugglers continue to Innovate

By Allan Wall

In the ongoing cat and mouse game of drug smuggling across the border, the smugglers continue to innovate, finding creative ways of getting drugs across the border from Mexico to the United States. 

For example, a trebuchet (a type of catapult) has been used to throw drugs across the border.

And underground, smugglers have constructed sophisticated tunnels through which drugs can be smuggled unawares to those on the surface.

In the last few years smugglers have begun to use drones (small unmanned aircraft) to move drugs across the border.

On January 22nd, a drone crashed in Tijuana near the San Ysidro border crossing, landing in a parking lot, at night, on the Mexican side of the border.  The little aircraft was powered by a lithium battery and had six propellers and a GPS (global positioning system) to get it to its destination.  The drone was carrying over six pounds of crystal meth, methodically wrapped in six separate packages.   

Apparently, the reason this drone crashed was that it was loaded down too heavily.   According to DEA Special Agent Matt Barden, “In San Diego, the street value, at last account, for a six-pound load would be about US$48,000.  Once you get it across the border that stuff’s like gold.”

So apparently, the smugglers overloaded the little drone and that caused it to crash.

Special Agent Barden put things in perspective: "I would hate to belittle 6 pounds of meth.  That's like saying 6 pounds of heroin isn't bad ... but I think the big thing to look at is the fact that the cartels or drug traffickers from Mexico are using drones in their playbook.  My greater fear, being an agent, is what a drone means to officer safety. That to me, personally, being a tactical officer, that's my concern.”

Indeed, the cartels’ use of drones for surveillance is potentially more dangerous than that of simply using them for smuggling.

According to drug war analyst Sylvia Longmire, "The cartels have been using drones for surveillance. Transporting drugs is a bit more complicated.  This is further evidence that the cartels have unlimited funds and creativity."

Regarding drug smuggling, another innovative technique takes advantage of the “trusted traveler” program to get drugs into the United States.  The trusted traveler program allows preapproved frequent border crossers to enter more rapidly via special lanes at border crossings.

The program’s full name is Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI). 

Before being accepted into the program, applicants must pass background checks.  Currently there are hundreds of thousands of motorists in the SENTRI program. 

The program is especially popular at the busy San Ysidro crossing at San Diego, where in fiscal 2013 SENTRI automobile crossings constituted 40% of the total crossings.  According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 11,346,966 northbound private vehicles crossed the border at San Ysidro in 2013.

What the smugglers do is put magnetized containers of drugs under the cars of unknowing “trusted travelers” to get the drugs across the border.  An advantage for the smugglers is that people with the SENTRI pass may park for hours in Mexico, then return to the U.S. side.  Attaching and removing the containers only takes seconds, and drug smugglers track automobile travel on both the U.S. and Mexican sides of the border to learn where people go and where they park.  These people know what they’re doing, in other words.

On January 12th, a “trusted traveler” who had crossed the border at the San Ysidro port of entry in the special “trusted traveler” lane stopped for gas.  Spying the containers, and thinking they might be a bomb, the driver called the police.  Upon arrival, the police discovered that rather than a bomb it was 13.2 pounds of heroin packed inside six cylinders attached magnetically to the underside of the automobile.  Rather clever, eh?

Since then, similar discoveries of trusted travelers have been made in San Diego.  

On January 13th, the very next day, inspectors found 35 pounds of marijuana in seven containers under a car driven by a trusted traveler at the Otay Mesa border crossing, also in San Diego.   

On January 20th, also at Otay Mesa, eight pounds of meth were found under a car driven by a trusted traveler.

On January 21st, an inspection dog discovered 18 pounds of marijuana under a 2000 Toyota Corolla driven by a SENTRI driver who, however, had used a regular lane.

There’s big money in the drug business, thus the innovation continues, presenting yet more challenges for law enforcement.

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Allan Wall, an educator, resided in Mexico for many years.  His website is located at http://www.allanwall.info.

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