Bomblet Dropping Drones Are Now Being Used By Cartels In Mexico’s Drug War

Extraordinary video footage has emerged reportedly showing a bomblet-dropping drone being used by one of Mexico’s increasingly well-armed drug cartels to attack one of its enemies. While we have reported previously about these groups using small quadcopter-type ‘suicide drones,’ each carrying a single explosive device, this is our best look at a drone acting as a bomber of sorts for cartel purposes. 

The video is filmed from the drone’s own camera. With the drone hovering over an enemy camp, several small munitions are seen being dropped through the trees, while multiple people targeted below run for their own protection.

At least three separate explosions appear to set part of the camp ablaze before the second part of the video also records the crash of the drone, as it rapidly loses control and spirals to the ground.

A report from the Quadratín Michoacán news channel yesterday includes the same video and notes that alleged members of the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), or Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which is primarily based in Jalisco state, western Mexico, bombed “at least two towns in Tepalcatepec with drones.” The municipality of Tepalcatepec is in the southwestern state of Michoacán, which borders Jalisco to the north and west. The two towns that were attacked are identified as El Bejuco and La Romera.

The locations of the two towns that were reportedly attacked by drones, plus the nearby city of Tepalcatepec, within the municipality of the same name. , GOOGLE EARTH
A map of Mexico showing the locations of the states of Jalisco and Michoacán., GOOGLE EARTH

The same news channel says that the video first appeared on social networks and that the attacks have also been corroborated by local residents, although the status of any casualties and the extent of the damage is unknown.

Quadratín Michoacán reports that the drones were “immediately shot down,” although it’s clear that at least one managed to deliver a number of munitions, and it can’t be confirmed if the drone we see crashing in the video was indeed brought down by groundfire or some other counter-drone device or even a malfunction.

The drone strikes appear to be connected to the ongoing efforts of the drug lord and leader of the CJNG, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as El Mencho, to take control of Tepalcatepec from the rival United Cartels. On Monday, alleged CJNG gunmen raided El Bejuco and La Romera, the two towns later reportedly hit by drone strikes.

A wanted poster of Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as El Mencho, offering $10 million for information leading to his arrest., U.S. Department of State 

Perhaps not coincidentally, it was in Tepalcatepec that a previous cache of explosive-laden quadcopters — two dozen in all — thought to belong to the CJNG was discovered by a civilian self-defense militia in July 2020. These drones were reportedly found in a car that had been abandoned by cartel hitmen.

One of the armed quadcopter drones reportedly captured in Tepalcatepec in July 2020., VIDEO CAPTURE VIA MEXICO NEWS DAILY

In the July 2020 incident, the bombs attached to the drones consisted of plastic containers filled with C4 charges and ball bearings to act as shrapnel. The munitions dropped by the drone in the latest video appear more sophisticated, cylindrical in shape, and apparently fitted with some kind of tailfins to improve their accuracy. Notably, the latest drone type is able to deliver multiple munitions, allowing different targets to be attacked during the same flight, while the earlier types identified so far contained only one explosive charge and were designed to fly one-way missions. 

This same general improvized bomblet-dropping drone capability first appeared during the Battle of Mosul in Iraq back in 2017 and has since become far more widespread in war-torn locales. At the time, we pointed out how the capability would be a game-changer and how it would proliferate quickly to other conflicts and criminal organizations. You can check out that report here.

Prior to that, quadcopters with explosives thought to belong to the CJNG were recovered in the city of Puebla, in the state of the same name, southeast of Mexico City, and subsequently elsewhere, in May 2020. The history of armed drones in the hands of the cartels goes back even further, to at least 2017.

An earlier type of armed drone, based on a quadcopter, captured during a raid on the cartels in 2017., Mexican Federal Police

Based on this limited evidence, it seems that CJNG’s ability to employ weaponized drones is very much still intact and its capabilities have even been improved through this latest, more sophisticated design.

We have discussed the background to the CJNG before, but since its emergence in 2009, it’s become responsible for the movement of approximately one-third of all drugs from Mexico into the United States and has also sought to establish footholds in Europe and Asia.

As well as drones, the CJNG can call upon a wide variety of weapons, vehicles, and equipment. These include camouflaged trucks, pickups, and SUVs, some of them armed with mounted weapons and equipped with add-on armor. Its personnel are also heavily armed and provided with military-style tactical gear. Some examples of their equipment are seen in this video:

Intriguingly, there are also reports that the CJNG previously made use of small, manned aircraft to drop improvised explosive devices on members of the Tepalcatepec self-defense militia. This tactic was apparently dropped after the Mexican government expanded its air surveillance in the region. The Mexican military is notably well equipped in this regard, with a variety of surveillance aircraft ranging from airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platforms to adapted executive aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles outfitted with signals intelligence (SIGINT) equipment and other sensors. However, the detection of small drones like those so far used in the CJNG attacks is a much tougher proposition.

A Mexican Air Force Embraer R-99 AEW&C aircraft. The type has been used to detect manned aircraft operated by the drug cartels., Zahpo75/Wikimedia Commons

Using a drone to deliver munitions is not a huge leap for the CJNG, or other cartels, which already make extensive use of unmanned systems to both transport drugs and carry out surveillance.

And, as we have seen in plentiful other examples, creating small bomb-carrying drones, especially those based on an off-the-shelf quadcopter or hexacopter design, is not necessarily a significant challenge. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has described a mobile counter-drone capability as an “emerging requirement,” and such is the proliferation of the threat that the U.S. military is now working hard to field effective countermeasures to small, bomb-carrying drones. These technologies include jammers, as well as directed-energy weapons, involving both lasers and high-power microwave beams.

The use of small munitions-carrying drones by a cartel, albeit a notably well-equipped one, provides further evidence, as if it were needed, of the threat posed by these kinds of weapons. In the future, we are only likely to see more such drones in the hands of both non-state actors and regular military units.

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Thomas Newdick Avatar

Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.