A 25-year-old U.S. citizen charged with using a drone to smuggle more than 13 pounds of methamphetamine from Mexico into San Diego was sentenced to 12 years in prison last week.
Jorge Edwin Rivera told authorities that he used drones to smuggle drugs five or six times between March 2017 and August of that year when he was arrested by U.S. Boreder Patrol agents.
Rivera said he would typically deliver the drugs to an accomplice at a nearby gas 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 allegedly saw the drone in flight near the San Ysidro Port of Entry on Aug. 8 and tracked it to Rivera about 2,000 yards from the Mexico border. Authorities say agents found Rivera with the methamphetamine in a lunch box and a 2-foot drone hidden in a nearby bush.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said in a 2017 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 28 pounds 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 30 pounds of marijuana.
Alana Robinson, acting U.S. 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, payloads pale compared to other transportation methods, like 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, making it less likely to get caught.
"The Border Patrol is very aware of the potential and are always listening and looking for drones," Robinson said.