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The proposal to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico has a drone problem

The drug war has failed—and a giant concrete slab 60 feet high won’t change that.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Posted on Aug 24, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 2:42 am CDT

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a bunch of illegal drugs!

Last week, U.S. authorities and Tijuana police confirmed that a drone smuggling narcotics out of Mexico crash landed in the border town of San Ysidro. The six pounds of meth apprehended from the defunct UAV mark a new challenge for law enforcement, as the cartels appear to be upgrading from old, underground tunnel systems to more technological means of transportation. Due to lack of aerospace regulations, drones are on the rise in Mexico, and their entrance into the drug war is a logical next step.

This isn’t a surprise: Technology has already changed the way illegal drugs are bought and sold in America, and the drug war’s drone problem is an outgrowth of this. But it’s also indicative of the grave flaw in our border debate. In the early stages of the 2016 presidential race, Republican candidates, led by real estate mogul cum frontrunner Donald Trump, have trumpeted building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico as the solution to the so-called “scourge” of illegal immigration. But in a world where crime is going digital, physical barriers mean less and less, and such proposals are likely to be as ineffective as they are racist.

While Trump’s comments alleging that Mexicans are “rapists” drew widespread criticism from Latinos and communities of color, those weren’t the only false claims the 2016 presidential hopeful made about undocumented workers. In his July campaign announcement, he also argued that immigrants are “bringing drugs” and “crime” to the U.S.

But that’s hardly true: Fewer undocumented immigrants are entering the U.S., and despite what Trump would have you believe, data from the Congressional Research Service shows that the majority of undocumented immigrants have no ties to drug trafficking whatsoever. In fact, the percentage of non-citizens make up a comparatively small percentage of America’s prison population, and a 2013 report from the Center for Investigative Reporting determined that four out of five drug smuggling arrests in this country actually involved U.S. citizens.

Technology has already changed the way illegal drugs are bought and sold in America, and the drug war’s drone problem is an outgrowth of this.

Of course, a lack of factual accuracy hasn’t stopped Trump’s ideas about erecting a “real wall” from catching on. (Some conservative establishment members, like Scott Walker, have come out in favor of similar plans.) But even taking the ludicrousness and cruelty of such proposals out of the equation, the drug smugglers Trump and other conservatives are apparently so afraid of can now transport drugs with the click of a button or the ease of a remote control—thanks to tech the U.S. pioneered. Donald Trump might think drugs are a Mexican problem, but it’s America that has revolutionized the trade.

The most obvious convergence of technology and illicit drug culture in the past few years was Silk Road, a black market website often called “the eBay for drugs.” Founded in 2011 by Ross Ulbricht and shut down by the Federal Bureau of Investigations in 2013, it’s been estimated that the site conducted $15 million in transactions annually. But even with Silk Road taken down, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s online drug market problem was just beginning. Multiple sites sprung up in Silk Road’s wake, and a new version of Silk Road itself emerged a year after the original was shut down.

However, the future of drugs online isn’t just darknets and the Deep Web: Social media has become a breeding ground for drug culture. A United Nations report from 2012 highlighted the rise of illegal Internet pharmacies, which target young people in the sale of illicit drugs and prescription medications, a lot of which is pushed through social networking sites and chatrooms.

This makes sense in a country increasingly powered by Amazon, Uber, and the technological convenience offered by the on-demand economy. And if there is an Amazon for drugs, it only makes sense for it to operate with drones. In Mexico and in North America, drones are a growing technology which threaten to completely reinvent the way we buy and sell goods, and the cartels’ use of drones feels eerily in synch with Amazon’s own plans to implement drones in their delivery system.

Donald Trump might think drugs are a Mexican problem, but it’s America that has revolutionized the trade.

Ironically, the U.S. government supplied Mexico with drones in the first place—in order to help them fight the other side of drug war. Now, the cartels have gotten their hands on the same tech we were supposed to be using against them, a technology that’s much cheaper and simpler than digging a tunnel. 

But if the next phase of the War on Drugs is a “War on Drones,” the officials at the DEA may have their work cut out for them: The drug trade operates on supply and demand, and as long as there’s overwhelming demand, it will be next to impossible to shut down the supply—especially in a landscape with increasing technological options for delivery. According to the aforementioned U.N. report, North America has become “the world’s largest illicit drug market,” and this means that drones aren’t just the next step in the drug trade. They’re just the beginning.

This is why presidential candidate and former governor of Texas Rick Perry has referred to the plan as nothing but “political rhetoric.” But the “wall” is more than a waste of time: It’s a distraction from the real conversations we should be having. The whole discussion has devolved into nothing but smoke and mirrors, blaming the United States’ missteps on undocumented workers, who continue to get thrown under the bus for our mistakes. Instead we need to face the fact that the drug war has failed—and a giant concrete slab 60 feet high won’t change that.

At a time when states are recognizing these failures by moving to decriminalize marijuana use—to make up for decades of scapegoating and targeting populations of color—we don’t need yet another border between us. Instead of building more walls, we need to start tearing them down.

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, he enjoys making movies with friends. He lives in Los Angeles.

Photo via Mike Kniec/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Aug 24, 2015, 4:06 pm CDT