Border Patrol agents are increasingly worried about the threat from drug-cartel-flown drones, after agents spotted 13 drones suspected of carrying drugs across one section of the U.S.-Mexico border in just one four-day period in November.
Cartels are aware that the U.S. lacks the ability to detect the drones, much less to interdict them, making them a choice method for smuggling high-dollar hard drugs into the country, agents said.
They said the fact that they even spotted the 13 drones was serendipitous and only hints at the scope of the real problem.
“We’re seeing an uptick. We flat-out just don’t have the technology to detect these,” said Brandon Judd, an agent and president of the National Border Patrol Council. “The number is just astronomical.”
Security analysts say the problems from drones are tough to oversell. The Islamic State has harnessed drones as delivery vehicles for improvised explosive devices, and top U.S. officials fear those same tactics could be used in the U.S.
Last year, one security blog reported that an intercepted Mexican cartel truck had both a drone and potato bombs, which are crude explosives packed with shrapnel.
Other uses could include tracking the Border Patrol to direct drug loads around them, or even using the drones as defensive shields to make it too dangerous for air support to assist on Border Patrol operations.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, was unable to point to a policy for handling the dangers posed by unmanned aerial vehicles.
“While I can’t provide specifics, I can tell you that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is charged with protecting our nation and will mitigate threats from any direction or any mode they may come,” said Dan Hetlage, a spokesperson for the agency.
Agents said there isn’t any policy and they are left to deal with the problem as best they can.
“We’re hoping that D.C. gets off the dime or starts getting ahead of the curve instead of being behind the curve, and gives us the tools to keep the country safe,” said Christopher J. Harris, an agent and secretary of Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council, which covers about 2,400 agents in the San Diego sector.
“When you have that number going across and you really can’t do anything about it, that’s deeply frustrating,” Mr. Harris said.
Agents in the San Diego sector reported the drone flights in November.
They spotted two drones on Nov. 11 from 2:30 to 3 a.m. Another six were spotted a day later from 11 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Five more were reported on Nov. 18 from 10:30 to 11 p.m.
All of them were reported by the Imperial Beach station, which is responsible for just 5.5 miles of the international border, covering the area from San Diego to Tijuana.
“The moment drones started becoming household items, CBP should have anticipated their use for criminal enterprise,” Mr. Judd said. “Instead, and in typical CBP fashion, it waited until an issue became a crisis before it chose to act. But like always, we’re already behind the eight ball and we’re left with trying to play catch-up.”
Agents say cartels all along the border are using drones, though the San Diego sector has been among the most active in detailing the traffic it is seeing.
In August, an agent managed to spot a drone flying across the border and tracked it to its landing. They arrested a 25-year-old American citizen who admitted he was the pickup person.
Police seized 13 pounds of methamphetamine, worth an estimated $46,000, and also seized the drone, a Matrice 600 Pro, which sells for about $5,000, can take off with a 13-pound load and can fly at 40 mph.
The man arrested with the drone and drugs said he was paid $1,000 per pickup and had made a series of deliveries before he was caught.
Some local law enforcement officials have questioned why agents aren’t permitted to shoot down drones they see crossing the border. They call it the equivalent of an attack.
Agents say the logistics of firing on a drone would be complicated, particularly in more populated areas.
Some parts of the government are further along than others in dealing with the threat.
Airports, critical infrastructure installations and the Defense Department have all been looking at solutions, and several companies said they are working with the Pentagon on systems that can detect — and, if wanted, take control of — bogey drones.
Mike Hale, a senior vice president at CACI International Inc., said the company’s SkyTracker technology homes in on drones’ radio frequencies, identifying the drone and tracing the operator’s location, which would give the Border Patrol a wealth of information to plot its next steps.
Should that include interdiction, the technology allows for that as well, Mr. Hale said.
“We have the capability to — I will say — get into the control loop of the UAV and have it do stuff we want it to do, versus the person trying to fly it,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, Missouri Republican, is circulating a draft bill that would update federal law on interdiction of drones. The Defense Department currently is the only branch of government able to engage UAVs.
A November version of the Hartzler bill authorized federal agencies to track and disrupt drones, including by seizing control of them or shooting them down, should they be deemed threats to safety.
One source said the drone industry was insisting on changes that would delete “border security operations” as a field of action and instead limit it to counternarcotics and counterterrorism operations. The industry also pushed to limit tracking and interdiction authority to the federal government, opposing efforts to allow authorized state and local law enforcement to help out.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Hartzler said the congresswoman is “working with agency and industry stakeholders to ensure the legislation provides relief from rules that prohibit them from engaging with drones while including adequate privacy protections.”
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a leading industry advocacy group, said it wants strict enforcement of laws against “unlawful and irresponsible behavior.”
“That is why we are working with policymakers to ensure that government agencies have the authority to keep the skies safe and secure, while maintaining the FAA’s sovereignty over the U.S. airspace,” Brian Wynne, president of the group, said in a statement.