Part of the White House argument for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border with Mexico has been that a barrier will impede the flow of drugs into the United States, but that argument does not sit well with the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is concerned smugglers will likely find ways of avoiding a wall altogether, like flying over it with unmanned aircraft.
“Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl,” President Trump said this week in a prime time address at the White House on his proposed border wall.
Yet, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) data indicate that most such shipments come across the border through legal points of entry and covertly stashed in tractor trailers, trucks, and cars.
In addition, transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) over the last decade have employed drones to smuggle small amounts of drugs into the U.S., and such use to evade a border wall or inspections at legal points of entry could increase, according to the DEA.
Border Patrol agents sometimes intercept drone-borne drugs, as they did in August 2017 when an agent in San Diego County heard the buzzing of a remotely-controlled aircraft coming over the border fence and contacted his fellow agents, who then found and arrested a 25-year-old man carrying 13 pounds of methamphetamine he had removed from the drone.
“Mexican TCOs exploit various aerial methods to transport illicit drugs across the SWB [southwest border],” Paul Knierim, a DEA deputy chief of operations, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration last month.
“These methods include the use of ultralight aircraft and unmanned aerial systems (UASs) and drones to conduct air drops,” Knierim testified. “Ultralights are primarily used to transport marijuana shipments, depositing the drugs in close proximity to the SWB. Currently, 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. Mexican TCOs also use UAS to monitor the activity of U.S. law enforcement along the SWB to identify cross-border vulnerabilities.”
The FAA next spring plans to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) related to remote identification of UAS operating around airports and the national airspace to help law enforcement and other authorities rapidly identify potentially wayward drones and their operators.
The “intent” of the rulemaking is for the data obtained through remote identification of a UAS and its operator to be available to federal, state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement, Angela Stubblefield, deputy associate administrator in FAA’s Office of Security & Hazardous Materials Safety, said recently.
The FAA Reauthorization Bill, P.L. 115-254, permits the departments of Homeland Security and Justice to detect, monitor, identify and mitigate threats posed by drones to certain critical infrastructures in the U.S. That’s the first time DHS and the DoJ have been given authority to defeat potential drone threats.
In addition, the law gives the green light to the Department of Homeland Security to test drone detection systems and to develop standards to mitigate drone threats in the national airspace. The DHS Science and Technology Office is developing plans for a counter-UAS testing program beginning in 2019.
The law also gives the FAA the authority to require UAS to have remote identification built in by the manufacturers.
In fiscal 2017, Congress also gave the departments of Defense and Energy limited approval to counter UAS near their critical infrastructure in the U.S.
The impetus for such federal provisions is policy makers’ concern about the use of small UAS for drug and contraband smuggling, attacks against people and infrastructure, and for spying and intelligence gathering.