Jalisco New Generation Cartel: Drones: The Latest Weapon (and Status Symbol) of Mexican Cartels | United States

A vehicle and a drone operated by CJNG at a roadblock in Aguililla (Michoacán) in April 2021Cuartoscuro

Cartel members may belong to a criminal organization, but most of them are still teenagers and young people with little to do. They are big kids living in rural areas like the Mexican state of Michoacán, where every day is more or less the same. The monotony is broken by sudden moments of violence and adrenaline. These members will likely be dead within five years, killed either in a shootout with the police or by a rival gang. But apart from this sporadic violence, life is quite routine and boring – nothing to do with narcocorridos, which sing of excitement and glory, or Netflix Narcos series, where everything is glamorous. These young people are bored, like any young person in a small town in the world, explains Romain Le Cour, a doctor of political science at the University of Paris, who is conducting an in-depth investigation into violence in Michoacán. The difference is that, unlike other young people, they have access to weapons. And to kill their boredom, maintain their status, and make it clear who’s in control, they use them. Their latest toy is the drone.

“You have to imagine a context in which young men between 15 and 30 years old, men from ranches, from rural areas, are bored in their job as contract killers, smoke drugs, use drugs, drink alcohol… 95% of the time nothing happens, there’s a male boredom that’s very universal,” says Le Cour. “The drone is becoming a fun tool. It’s fun and then there’s everything else. According to experts, the main practical use of drones is surveillance – it is used to monitor the movements of police and rivals, observe remote or hard-to-reach areas such as woods and mountains and it is difficult to shoot down . Cartels also use drones to transport small amounts of drugs and, on occasion, to launch attacks.

In mid-January, a video recorded on a drone controlled by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG in its Spanish acronym) went viral. In the footage, the drone is seen dropping several bombs on Tepalcatepec, a municipality in Michoacán that has been hit hard by narco-violence. For the past few years, these types of attacks have happened in the state every few months. It’s a worrying trend, says Le Cour, who has spent time with young people in prison as part of her research. “There is a change of panorama, but the big question is: what is all this for? I think strategically, if you compare it to the levels of violence in Michoacán, it’s one more tool on the spectrum, which ranges from murder and enforced disappearances to torture and extortion.

In 2021, Michoacán was the third Mexican state with the third highest number of murders, recording 2,732 homicides, according to the Secretary of Security and Civil Protection. For years rival cartels – such as CJNG, Cárteles Unidos and what remains of La Familia Michoacana and Caballeros Templarios – have fought for control of the state, while local vigilantes have also become involved in the fight. “Drones killed maybe five people in Michoacán last year, at most. , in terms of violence, the impact is still limited,” says Le Cour.

Cecilia Farfán Méndez, security officer at the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in violence, agrees. “While it’s possible we’ll see more drones in the future, I don’t think that’s going to be a big part of how [the cartels] function. What I find interesting is that they broadcast this, that they released the video [of the drone footage]. The intention is to see it. It’s very glamorous and outrageous to have video from a drone. But whether this has any significant implications for what we see in the future isn’t so clear.

“What is worrying is that we now have concrete data that shows that the population thinks that organized criminal groups have more firepower than the Mexican armed forces, and that is not true,” adds- she. Indeed, the drones used by the cartels are not drones designed for combat, but rather commercial products that anyone with enough money can buy online for a few hundred dollars. From there, it is not difficult to turn the drone into a weapon. A hook remotely controllable from a mobile phone is added to the drone, then a bomb is placed on it. A plastic cup is glued to the bomb with adhesive tape, which acts as a sort of parachute and gives it the appearance of a badminton shuttlecock. Once the drone is over the target, the bomb is dropped.

“They showed me modified drones and explosive charges. There are “teacher” pilots. A drone is a weapon, a tactical tool (but also a game, fashion, toy). There is an arms race. Drones are one of them. The challenge: to treat them as weapons.

The drone used to bomb Tepalcatepec falls into this category of commercial aircraft. Even the explosives used were homemade. “He seemed to be C-4 [a common variety of plastic explosive] the size of the blast, but it’s not hard to make homemade explosives if you have access to chemicals in a drug lab,” says Daniel Gómez-Tagle, an analyst on police and military equipment. “It is important to emphasize that not just anyone could make them. Knowing the formula is not the same as knowing how to make them, they are not uneducated hitmen. These are people who understand physics and chemistry at least at an intermediate level. These are devices that have been made more and more sophisticated over the years, either through testing or specialized design.

The use of drones has been most documented in Michoacán, but criminal groups across Mexico have also begun using these devices. Le Cour says teachers are even hired to teach young gang members how to use unmanned aerial vehicles.

Status symbol

“The use of drones is absolutely an element of power and status,” says Chris Dalby, editor of InsightCrime, an investigative website focused on organized crime. “It’s a very strong symbol that you have money, and there’s a lot of money in Michoacán.”

He adds: “The Jalisco Cartel has a very good understanding of marketing effectiveness. [Drones] are a highly ineffective means of killing compared to conventional firearms and explosives. […] However, for the people who were in Tepalcatepec, being bombed from the air was very traumatic. Locally, in areas where they are used, they can be a very effective weapon of intimidation.

In society at large, drones have also become more fashionable. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of unmanned aerial vehicles registered in Mexico jumped 2,000%, according to the statistics website Statista. And that number should multiply. “It’s something fun, a lot of people use it even in rural contexts because it’s a tool to monitor your ranch, to supervise construction work,” explains Le Cour. And narcos have not escaped this trend. “Drones have become fashionable in arms trafficking. Fifteen years ago he must have looked like a rancher. Now the fashion among groups, at least in Michoacán, is to look like special forces, a look that the Zetas introduced in their time: boots, high caliber guns, kevlar [bullet-proof vests]uniforms…”

For Mexican narcos, drones have become a tool with multiple uses. In addition to being a strategic, tactical and military tool, it also serves for propaganda and marketing, as seen in the attack on Tepalcatepec. “I can honestly understand that dropping a bomb with a drone, filming it and sharing it [the footage] might look like something out of a video game. It’s very attractive and sexy in terms of propaganda. Not only does this allow you to send a message to an enemy group; if you made the video, you’re the cool guy. And that is much appreciated. »

James V. Hayes