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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ultralight Aircraft Now Ferrying Drugs Across U.S.-Mexico Border

Mexican organized crime groups are using ultralight aircraft to drop marijuana bundles in agricultural fields and desert scrub across the U.S. border. The incursions are hard to detect and are on the upswing.
A soldier at an army base in Mexicali, Mexico, looks at two ultralight aircraft that were recently confiscated from drug smugglers.
By Richard Marosi,
Los Angeles Times  

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, mostly 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.

At Riverside County's Air and Marine Operations Center, a yellow line on the screen traces the route of an aircraft that crossed from Mexico into San Diego County. The center helps the U.S. Border Patrol detect drug smugglers who are flying ultralight aircraft across the border into California and Arizona.

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 the 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.

A soldier operates a steel basket beneath a confiscated ultralight aircraft. Smugglers piloting the aircraft drop their contraband from the basket without landing.

In Calexico, Det. Mario Salinas was walking to his car one morning last year when he heard something buzzing over the Police Department on 5th Street. "I hear this weird noise, like a lawn mower. I look up and I see this small plane," said Salinas, who pursued the aircraft before it eluded him as it flew over the desert.

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.

U.S. Border Patrol agents, accustomed to scouring for footprints and tracks in the sand, have had to adapt. They are now instructed to turn off their engines and roll down their windows so they can listen for incursions by air.

"We're trained to look down and at the fence. Now we have to look up for tell-tale signs of ultralight traffic," said Roy D. Villarreal, deputy chief patrol agent of the El Centro sector in the Imperial Valley.

Although the new trend poses serious challenges, authorities point out that ultralights are a decidedly inefficient way of getting drugs across the border. Traffickers who once moved thousands of pounds of drugs across the border now appear to be packing their loads by the pound, not the ton, authorities say.

The ultralights — lightweight planes typically used as recreational aircraft — are customized for smuggling purposes. All-terrain wheels are added for bumpy landings. Second seats are ripped out to add fuel capacity. Drugs are loaded onto metal baskets affixed to the bottom of the framing. From 150 to 250 pounds of marijuana are generally carried, depending on the weight of the pilot. Some ultralights are shrouded in black paint, with even the plastic tarp covers for the marijuana blackened for stealth entries.

Radar operators at Riverside County's Air and Marine Operations Center, where general aviation air traffic across the country is monitored, have trouble detecting the aircraft.

Flying as low as 500 feet, their small frames are hard to distinguish from trucks. Many appear, then disappear from radar screens. Others never appear at all, and the ultralight trend has prompted border authorities to develop new radar technologies specifically designed to detect the aircraft.

"There are indications of larger amounts of activity," said Tony Crowder, director of the Air and Marine Operations Center, which is housed at March Air Reserve Base.

The close cooperation among radar operators, helicopter pilots and agents on the ground has resulted in some successes.

Ultralight pilots no longer land on U.S. soil after authorities began responding quickly to offloading sites. The Mexican Army has seized four ultralights around Baja California in recent weeks after being tipped off by U.S. authorities.

In Arizona, where the vast majority of the flights occur, authorities have arrested 36 people in connection with ultralight smuggling, most of them ground crew members who load the dropped marijuana into cars.

The trend has grown so rapidly in sparsely populated areas of Arizona that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) introduced a bill last year to stiffen prison terms for ultralight smugglers.

Recruiting pilots is more difficult than finding truck operators, drivers or backpackers to ferry drugs across the border. Some of the pilots are believed to come from Mexican coastal resorts where they work day jobs taking tourists on lessons or adventure flights.

A pilot who was paralyzed in 2008 after he clipped power lines near Tucson and crashed ended up being deported to Mexico in a wheelchair. Another pilot died after only one side of his load released, causing the plane to destabilize and spiral into a lettuce field near Yuma, Ariz. In June, another trafficker encountered a hovering Black Hawk helicopter that raced to intercept him over the Tohono O'odom Indian reservation in Arizona.

The pilot, Jose Alberto Figueroa Valenzuela, 37, got a 4 1/2-year prison term after making a rough landing, said Rodney Irby, assistant special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona.

"He took all these risks, got chased by a Black Hawk helicopter and ended up crashing for 2,000 bucks that he never got," Irby said.


  1. I have to admit, if not for the violence and destruction of Mexico, this shit would be very funny. I mean, sling shots, donkeys, tunnels, submarines and now this. It's creative and almost funny.

  2. They're getting desperate. This is a really shitty way to transport anything. All the efforts against the drug cartels are working if they are resorting to giant slingshots and ultralights. ha, ha.

  3. Shoot them down if they are invading our air space no matter what the sir craft maay be.

  4. If it was a really bad way of getting drugs across they would not be doing it, they are businessmen after all and very good at it.

    Mules are slow and easy to catch if you spot then. Tunnels take forever to dig before you can get anything across.

    But ultralights, get a plane, have a pilot and you are set. Some 3-4 drops of 150-250 pounds in a night is great.

  5. I agree, take 'em the out! Something new next week? Remote control drug running dronettes.

  6. Shoot a pinche missle at that motherfucker AIRWOLF style!

  7. You wanna get high??? hahahahaha

  8. Cartels getting desperate? If we keep telling us tales to cheer up the TV public we'll go nowhere.
    They don't need to fly 200 miles inside USA, a single ultralight can do three 50-60 miles run per night, that's 500-600 pounds or more of something that's sold by the ounce and used by the gram. And who says that they bring in grass only? How much social damage a single 100 pound shipment of heroine or cocaine can do?

  9. hoy en día una lista dehelicopteros rcestán disponible en el mercado. Hay gran cantidad de nuevos modelos están disponibles con funciones únicas y de diseño., Tuve un avión nombres como "helicóptero carbon'4 canal rc. El 4CH RC helicóptero (canales) y 'carbono' un solo rotor es ideal para los principiantes. Si usted quiere aprender a volar un helicóptero de rotor único, esta es una buena opción debido a su bajo precio giroscopio, y su construcción de fibra de carbono. Este helicóptero RC helicóptero de rotor único es grande a un precio inmejorable.


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