SAN DIEGO – They fly low and slow over the border, their wings painted black and motors humming faintly under moonlit skies. The pilots, some armed in the open cockpits, steer the horizontal control bar with one hand and pull a latch with the other, releasing 250-pound payloads that land with a thud, leaving only craters as evidence of another successful smuggling run.
Mexican organized crime groups, increasingly stymied by stepped-up enforcement on land, have dug tunnels and captained boats to get drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. Now they are taking to the skies, using ultralight aircraft that resemble motorized hang gliders to drop marijuana bundles in agricultural fields and desert scrub across the Southwest border.
What began with a few flights in Arizona in 2008 is now common from Texas to California’s Imperial Valley and, most recently, San Diego, where at least two ultralights suspected of carrying drugs have been detected flying over Interstate 8, according to U.S. border authorities.
The number of incursions by ultralights reached 228 in the last federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30, almost double from the previous year. Seventy-one have been detected in this fiscal year through April, according to border authorities.
Flying at night with lights out, and zipping back across the border in minutes, ultralight aircraft sightings are rare, but often dramatic. At least two have been chased out of Arizona skies by Black Hawk Customs and Border Protection helicopters and F-16 jet fighters. Last month, a pair of visiting British helicopter pilots almost crashed into an ultralight during training exercises over California’s Imperial Valley.
The smuggling work is fraught with danger. High winds can flip the light aircraft. Moonlight provides illumination, but some pilots wear night-vision goggles. Others fly over major roads to orient themselves. Drop zones are illuminated by ground crews using strobe lights or glow sticks. There is little room for error.
At least one pilot has been paralyzed; another died in a crash.
The ultralight activity is seen as strong evidence that smugglers are having an increasingly difficult time getting marijuana over land crossings.
Authorities noticed a surge in flights in Imperial County after newly erected fencing along California’s southeast corner blocked smugglers from crossing desert dunes in all-terrain vehicles.