Illicit drone flights surge along US-Mexico border as smugglers hunt for soft spots

Smugglers are using video cameras and small drones to spot vulnerabilities along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the Department of Homeland Security is struggling to stop them.

Reports of unmanned aircraft flying along the Southwest border have spiked in recent months, with more than three dozen sightings since October, when the current fiscal year began. That data point is on a course to quadruple from the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, where officials say they are concerned that criminal groups are using the aircraft for surveillance while seeking paths to traffic drugs and other illicit material into the United States.

“They’re probably trying to get eyeballs on agents out in the field and see where soft areas are,” said James Thom, acting operations director for CBP’s Air and Marine Operations Center outside Los Angeles. “To date, I don’t know that we’ve successfully been able to detect and track drone activity.”

The growing use of off-the-shelf, hard-to-spot drones is a prime example of the relentless cat-and-mouse game between criminals and Border Patrol agents. Smugglers constantly seek to outsmart U.S. law enforcement. And as part of the Trump administration’s pledge to crack down on the influx of drugs and people entering the country illegally, Homeland Security is scrambling to identify technology and techniques that can thwart them.

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