A remote control-operated drone flew over the border fence from Mexico, heading for San Ysidro while a Border Patrol agent listened and watched. He radioed ahead to other agents to be on the lookout for the small aircraft.
Late on the night of Aug. 8, agents arrested a man carrying a bag full of heroin — more than 13 pounds valued at an estimated $46,000. They found the drone stashed under a bush near Servando Avenue and Valentine Street, authorities said Friday.
“We’ve had some success on the ground when it comes to (catching) smugglers of humans and controlled substances. So transnational organizations are looking for other ways to get their product into the country.”
After his arrest in San Ysidro last week, Jose Edwin Rivera, 25, told investigators he had smuggled drugs by drone into the U.S. from Mexico five or six times since March, according to a criminal complaint filed in San Diego federal court on Aug. 9. He said he usually turned the drugs over to a man at a San Ysidro gas station, pocketing $1,000 on delivery.
The complaint said Rivera told a Border Patrol agent and a Homeland Security Investigations agent that he normally would communicate with contacts in Mexico for instructions after retrieving the drone and drugs. He said he expected to do so on Aug. 8, but was interrupted by his arrest.
While the drone smuggling arrest is a first in San Diego County, a 2015 case in Imperial County was the first in the Southwest region involving an unmanned aerial vehicle. Two men pleaded guilty to flying 30 pounds of marijuana over the border to Calexico.
Endicott said there have been seven known drone incursions into the U.S. across San Diego and Imperial counties. Five were last year. The two this year include this month’s incident. In the six prior cases, he said, agents either lost sight of the drone or it flew back to Mexico.
Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego, said a few years ago a methamphetamine-laden drone was launched in Tijuana but never made it across the border before Mexican authorities stopped it.
“That was a sign they were going to possibly use drones in this area,” Mack said.
She said a special air unit of HSI works smuggling cases involving planes, ultralight aircraft and drones.
“The goal would be to work as quickly as we could to identify the organization behind the smuggling,” Mack said.
Acting U.S. Attorney Alana Robinson said law enforcement has known about drug-smuggling drones for a number of years.
Their advantage to the smugglers is that they can operate the devices from Mexico, out of reach of U.S. prosecutors. Drawbacks, Robinson said, are that drones are noisy and have a limited carrying capacity.
“The concern though is as technology improves, particularly in the area of how quiet a drone can be and the life of the battery,” Robinson said. “That can be more of an issue.”
She said a drone that can carry a dozen pounds or more “is, on the scale of things, on the small side” compared to drug loads found in airplanes, semi-truck trailers and cars.
“It’s a concern,” Endicott added. “I wouldn’t call it an epidemic. We want to eliminate the threat before it becomes one.”