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Human Smugglers Using Drones to Guide Migrants into the US

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sylvia longmire contributorBy Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security

According to the U.S. Border Patrol in the El Paso sector, human smugglers are using drones to help guide groups of immigrants looking to enter the United States illegally.

Drone-Assisted Illegal Entry at US Border

A report by KVIA7 News indicated that in mid-April 2019, a Border Patrol agent was monitoring the border at night using an infrared camera when he observed a small airborne object traveling northbound across the international boundary between the U.S. and Mexico border. Officials told KVIA that the object traveled roughly 100 yards over U.S. territory and then returned to Mexico. This happened three times, and about two minutes after the last return to Mexico, a group of 10 migrants entered the United States illegally in the same area where the drone was spotted.

In a news release, the Border Patrol stated, “This is the first known time in recent history that a drone has been utilized as a ‘look-out’ in order to aid in illegal entries in the El Paso sector.” The news release did not provide any details on the type, size or speed of the drone that was observed.

Night Vision Drones

There are dozens of different kinds of drones available on the market for both hobbyists and commercial operators. Most do not come standard with thermal cameras or night vision capabilities, but even basic hobbyist drones can be modified to include this capability. Many drones can fly several kilometers away from their operators and controllers, and they can achieve speeds of 40 mph or greater.

The greatest utility of drones for criminal organizations is as surveillance platforms, but many have experimented with them as delivery systems – with mixed results. In August 2017, a man in possession of several pounds of methamphetamine was arrested by Border Patrol agents in San Diego sector after a drone was observed flying over the border. The drone was suspected of hauling 12 packages of methamphetamine. Christopher Harris, a Border Patrol agent and union representative, told the Washington Times, “At least in our sector, we’ve never gotten all three at once — the drone, the receiver, and the narcotics.”

Drones and Cross-Border Vulnerabilities

Paul Knierim, a DEA deputy chief of operations, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration in December 2018, “Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) can only convey small multi-kilogram amounts of illicit drugs at a time and are therefore not commonly used, though there is potential for increased growth and use.” He continued, “Mexican transnational criminal organizations also use UAS to monitor the activity of U.S. law enforcement along the Southwest border to identify cross-border vulnerabilities.”

The FAA is the government authority for regulating drone use in the United States, but has recently begun working with the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to identify and defeat illegal drone usage. The FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2018 permits DHS and DOJ to detect, monitor, identify and mitigate threats posed by drones to certain critical infrastructures in the U.S. In addition, the law provides authority to DHS to test throne detection systems and to develop standards to mitigate room threats in the national airspace.

Unfortunately for U.S. law enforcement agencies, by their very nature, drones are extremely difficult to detect and even more difficult to ground. Many are no bigger than a lunchbox, and currently there is no targeted technology that can bring down a drone using either a projectile or some sort of electronic interference with any degree of accuracy. If President Trump’s plans to build additional sections of border fence continue, drone usage for both migrant smuggling and drug smuggling are likely to continue and even increase.

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