Trump’s multibillion-dollar border wall wouldn’t stop this $5,000 drone

Watch out for drones.
Watch out for drones.
Image: AP Photo/Denis Poroy
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US president Donald Trump is still struggling to find someone willing to pay for the southern border wall he wants to keep immigrants and drugs out of the US. In the meantime, smugglers have already developed methods to overcome it.

Earlier this month, US border patrol agents intercepted a methamphetamine shipment that had been dropped off via drone on the US side of the border in San Diego County, California. The hovering device had successfully flown over the border fence and dropped off the cargo.

The agents had seen the drone fly over and were on the lookout. A few minutes later, they intercepted a man who was on his way to deliver the drugs, the US Border Patrol said on Aug. 18. They also found the drone, a Matrice 600 Pro, which costs $4,999 and is usually used for filming movies or TV shows, hidden in the bushes.

“Due to the agents’ heightened vigilance, this drone smuggling scheme was stopped before these dangerous narcotics could enter our communities,” a spokesman said in a statement. What the statement didn’t mention was that the agents’ vigilance hadn’t prevented the alleged smuggler bringing in meth five or six times over the past six months, as he reportedly admitted after his arrest.

The case highlights the difficulties of border patrolling. US Customs and Border Protection has a budget of nearly $14 billion, but even that was not enough to detect the previous drone deliveries the smuggler says he received before he was caught.

The cost of beating border security is a lot less, and the incentives to do it are big. The first time US border agents seized a drone-borne drug shipment was almost exactly two years ago; it contained 28 pounds (12.7 kg) of heroin. On this occasion, they found 13.4 pounds of methamphetamine on the man they arrested—just a bit over the recommended weight carrying capacity of the Matrice 600. That’s worth $46,000, according to the Border Patrol. Assuming the smugglers used the same drone and were shipping similar amounts in the previous trips, they would have made at least $230,000 in revenue.

Of course, we don’t know the smugglers’ profit margin, but according to a 2010 estimate (pdf, p. 22), the cost of marijuana increases 10-fold when it crosses the Mexico-US border. So it seems fair to assume meth traffickers can afford to lose a $5,000 drone every few runs.