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Illegal drug trade using ultralight aircraft

Low-flying planes are harder to detect on radar

Farmworkers who arrived at a San Luis, Ariz., lettuce field the morning of Nov. 17 found a grisly scene: the wreckage of an ultralight aircraft and the body of the pilot in the seat.

There were also six bundles – 141 pounds – of marijuana, San Luis Police Sgt. Gerardo Torres said.

“I’ve been working here the last seven years, and I haven’t seen anything like that,” he said.

An ultralight is a one-person motorized aircraft that resembles a hang glider. It is one of the newest tools smugglers are using to get drugs across the U.S.-Mexican border.

Flying drugs into the U.S. isn’t new, but use of ultralights is an emerging trend, said Michael Kostelnik, a Customs and Border Protection assistant commissioner. They fly low under cover of darkness and are harder to see on radar than larger planes. The CBP has intercepted three drug-hauling ultralights since October, he said.

“This is a new twist,” Kostelnik said. “You’re really at war with drug cartels on this. They change tactics, and we have to change tactics in the same way.”

The drug trade along the border has spawned a never-ending cat-and-mouse game between smugglers and law enforcement officers. The game has gotten harder for smugglers since the Department of Homeland Security beefed up border enforcement, adding agents, fencing, cameras and other detection technology.

There are 18,000 Border Patrol agents now, compared with fewer than 11,000 five years ago, the agency said. There are 608 miles of vehicle and pedestrian fencing, compared with about 140 in October 2006.

In the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, responsible for 262 miles of the border, smugglers have been testing novel tactics, including building ramps to boost drug-filled cars over 4- to 6-foot barriers, field operations supervisor Omar Candelaria said. “We’re being more effective, and they’re trying alternate means to get around us,” Candelaria said.

Ultralights are limited, though. They have a top speed of 60 to 65 mph and can’t carry heavy loads, said Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association. Carrying too much weight could contribute to a crash, he said. “Ultralights are not something that could be used to transport huge, copious amounts of any product, legal or illegal,” he said.

An ultralight’s skeleton is usually made of metal or carbon tubing and the wings from nylon fabric. Although an ultralight may be detectable on radar, depending on the type of radar and the plane’s altitude, “it leaves a smaller impression on radar than a larger aircraft does,” he said.

In October, a low-flying ultralight carrying 223 pounds of marijuana was spotted on radar crossing the border about 12 miles west of Nogales, Ariz., CBP spokesman Juan Muqoz-Torres said. A helicopter trailed it until it landed outside Tucson. The Mexican pilot was captured and pleaded guilty to drug charges. He is awaiting sentencing.

In December, radar detected an ultralight also near Nogales. An unmanned CBP aircraft joined by three helicopters followed it, Muqoz-Torres said. The ultralight clipped power lines near a Tucson casino before crashing, paralyzing the Mexican pilot. He was deported.

The aircraft was carrying 350 pounds of marijuana, he said.

Those ultralights were outfitted with cages to hold the drugs. The CBP believes the pilots intended to fly over a designated spot, pull a lever and drop the load before heading back over the border, Muqoz-Torres said.


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