Drone carries drugs from Mexico

An image provided by the US Border Patrol shows a 60cm high drone that an agent spotted swooping over the Mexican border fence on Aug 8, 2017 near a crossing not far from San Diego. Authorities have arrested a man they say used the drone to fly drugs across the Mexican border into California. (AP Photo)

SAN DIEGO: A US citizen has been charged with using a drone to smuggle 5.9 kilogrammes of methamphetamine from Mexico, an unusually large seizure for what is still a novel technique to bring illegal drugs into the United States.

Jorge Edwin Rivera, 25, told authorities that he used drones to smuggle drugs five or six times since March, typically delivering them to an accomplice at a nearby petrol station in San Diego, according to a statement of probable cause. He said he was to be paid $1,000 for the attempt that ended in his arrest.

Border Patrol agents in San Diego spotted the drone in flight on Aug 8 and tracked it to Rivera about 1,800 metres from the Mexico border. Authorities say agents found Rivera with the methamphetamine in a lunch box and 60-centimetre-high drone hidden in a nearby bush.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration said in a recent annual report that drones are not often used to smuggle drugs from Mexico because they can only carry small loads, though it said they may become more common. In 2015, two people pleaded guilty to dropping 12.7 kilogrammes of heroin from a drone in the border town of Calexico, California. That same year, Border Patrol agents in San Luis, Arizona, spotted a drone dropping bundles with 13.6kg of marijuana.

Alana Robinson, acting US attorney for the Southern District of California, said drones haven’t appealed to smugglers because their noise attracts attention and battery life is short. Also, the payloads they can carry are small when compared to other transport methods, such as hidden vehicle compartments, boats or tunnels.

As technology addresses those shortcomings, Robinson expects drones to become more attractive to smugglers. The biggest advantage for them is that the drone operator can stay far from where the drugs are dropped, reducing the risk of capture.

“The Border Patrol is very aware of the potential and are always listening and looking for drones,” Robinson said.

Rivera is being held without bail and is scheduled to be arraigned on Sept 7.

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