Death from the skies? The threat of drug smuggling by drone

The Brookings Institution worries about an international crime problem that no 30-foot wall is going to stop: It calls drug smuggling by drone a perfect storm of risk to Americans.

Michael Sinclair, a Federal Executive fellow with the Brookings Institution, writes that more than 81,000 Americans died of drug overdoses between June 2019 and May 2020. It”s the highest number of overdose deaths recorded in US history, driven in large part by synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

How many of these deaths are attributed to smuggled drugs from Mexico, Sinclair doesn’t say. But he’s certainly worried about lax enforcement in Mexico, coupled with an increased supply of fentanyl. It’s well known that drug smugglers already use drones to move product across the border. But exactly how often and how much is just a guess. US Customs and Border Protection agents reported just 170 incidents over the past five years. But think of how hard it is to intercept a drone at night along that long international frontier. Some experts suggest that as many as a thousand drones could cross the border each week.

Sinclair is a little vague about what to do about it. He points out drones themselves are extremely difficult to detect. And it’s difficult to determine who’s flying them and from where. Also, there may be a legal issue with disabling a drone, even if it’s detected. Drones are legal aircraft in the US. So jamming or interfering with a drone’s electronic signals could violate several federal laws.

Drug smuggling by drone

Crooks are quick to spot the how useful drones can be to moving contraband. But Sinclair believes opioid smuggling raises the danger level to new heights.

“Relatively small, drone-delivered, synthetic opioid cargo can mean the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands,” he writes. “And swarmed drone deliveries en masse could simply be devastating.”

Sinclair suggests there needs to be better training and coordination between law enforcement agencies. And Congress needs to be more aware of the danger.

But he does have one concrete proposal: Make the border a drone no-fly zone, similar to the one over Washington, DC.

The Brookings Institution is a US think tank that conducts research and education primarily in economic development.

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