Note: Finding some of the ones with pot, but cocaine, heroin, meth?
Much less weight & volume, and much higher value.
As US land borders tighten, drug smugglers fly
Associated Press | Posted: Friday, April 29, 2011 5:49 am |
The visiting British pilots were training near a naval air station
one night this month when their helicopter came within about 150 feet
of an ultralight plane flying without lights. The ultralight darted
away toward Mexico without a trace.
The near-disaster over the Southern California desert was an example
of drug smugglers using low-flying aircraft that look like motorized
hang gliders to circumvent new fences along the U.S. border with
Mexico. The planes, which began appearing in Arizona three years ago,
are now turning up in remote parts of California and New Mexico.
And in a new twist, the planes rarely touch the ground. Pilots simply
pull levers that drop aluminum bins filled with about 200 pounds of
marijuana for drivers who are waiting on the ground with blinking
lights or glow-sticks. Within a few minutes, the pilots are back in
"It's like dropping a bomb from an aircraft," said Jeffrey Calhoon,
chief of the Border Patrol's El Centro sector, which stretches
through alfalfa farms, desert scrub and sand dunes in southeast
The Border Patrol has erected hundreds of miles of fences and vehicle
barriers along the border and added thousands of new agents, so drug
smugglers are going over, under and around.
As U.S. authorities tighten their noose on land, ultralights are
another tack to smuggle marijuana. The Customs and Border Protection
agency counted 228 incursions along the Mexican border in fiscal
2010, up from 118 a year earlier, when it began keeping track. There
have been 71 since the start of fiscal 2011 on Oct 1.
The agency counts an incursion when authorities seize an aircraft or
nearby drugs, when a trained source spots an aircraft that is
correlated by radar, or when enough people see an aircraft to
establish a cross-border flight pattern.
Tunnels are another means to circumvent tightened border security.
Lined with rail tracks, lighting and ventilation, two were discovered
in San Diego in November that netted a combined 50 tons of marijuana
on both sides of the border. U.S. authorities found 71 clandestine
tunnels since October 2008, more than during the previous six years.
Smugglers also use single-engine wooden boats to ferry bales of
marijuana up the Pacific Coast. U.S. authorities seized 47 tons of
narcotics off of Southern California shores since October 2008,
including 740 pounds this month in an abandoned craft at Dana Point,
about 75 miles north of the border.
Under Federal Aviation Administration regulations, ultralights weigh
less than 254 pounds, carry just five gallons of fuel and fly at a
top speed of 63 mph. They are not designed to carry anything other
than a pilot. No pilot's license or certificate is needed, though
regulations advise that the aircraft should not be flown over
populated areas or in the dark.
But drug pilots often zip along at night just above power lines.
Kevin Kelly of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was with
about a dozen agents looking for ultralights under a full November
moon in the desert east of Nogales, Ariz., when he heard what sounded
like lawnmower in the sky. The aircraft appeared from the south.
"It's got this big, long wingspan _ it's almost like Batman," said
Kelly, ICE's assistant special agent in charge of investigations in
Nogales. "It's almost like a glider with a little guy underneath it
Kelly watched the ultralight throttle back, get close to the ground
and dump bundles packed in duct tape. The pilot picked up speed and
wheeled back toward Mexico.
The agents waited for someone to pick up the load _ 286 pounds of
marijuana _ but no one came.
Ultralights initially flew as far north as the Phoenix area but they
now generally stay within 30 miles of the border, said Matt Allen,
special agent in charge of investigations for ICE in Arizona. Their
small fuel tanks require pilots who fly far north to either refuel or
take apart the aircraft and truck it back to Mexico.
Pilot Jesus Iriarte was arrested in October 2008 after landing an
ultralight with 222 pounds of marijuana strapped to the frame in
Marana, Ariz. _ nearly 100 miles north of the border _ and was
sentenced to prison.
"Gone are the days when they could come deep into the U.S.
undetected," Allen said. "They really don't want to be on the ground
anymore. They're dropping it and flying away ... It makes them less
Authorities are having more success capturing drivers who pick up the
Last month, Border Patrol agents arrested Sergio Favela near Douglas,
Ariz., as he was allegedly loading 220 pounds of pot into his pickup
truck around 3 a.m. A complaint filed in federal court in Arizona
says Favela, a U.S. citizen who was captured after a short foot
chase, told authorities he was to be paid $1,500.
Heightened enforcement in Arizona appears to be pushing smugglers to
California and New Mexico, some authorities say. In California,
authorities have confirmed 30 ultralight incursions since December in
Imperial County, a remote farming region with easy access to
highways, and another six in the San Diego area. The flights were
previously almost unknown in California.
The Border Patrol recently began encouraging agents in Imperial
County to spend more time outside their vehicles because it is
difficult to hear the aircraft over the hum of engines and air
conditioners. The planes fly over farms and desert scrub near
Calexico, a border town of about 40,000 residents. One pilot who
recently eluded capture dropped a load of pot in a warehouse lot in
Until fences and vehicle barriers were erected, drug smugglers
blended in with off-road vehicle enthusiasts in the Imperial Sand
Dunes, used as a film location for "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi."
Drug-laden Suburbans and Tahoes barreled through the desert scrub.
Drive-through smuggling attempts nearly stopped after fencing went up
in 2008 and 2009. The number of drive-thrus in the Border Patrol's El
Centro sector fell to six in fiscal 2010 from 340 in 2008.
That means smugglers are turning to tunnels and ultralights, Imperial
County Sheriff Ray Loera told Congress this month.
"The problem now is that, as Clint Eastwood said, they adapt and
overcome," he told lawmakers.
Still, the amount of pot being ferried on the ultralights pales
compared to the multi-ton shipments through tunnels or the volume of
seizures from secret vehicle compartments at border crossings every
day, causing some authorities to wonder why drug traffickers would go
to the trouble. In Imperial County, 10 seizures from ultralights
drops since December have netted a relatively modest 3,090 pounds of
"It makes you wonder how much they're really making off of this
venture," said William Mataya, a group supervisor for ICE who belongs
to an informal group of law enforcement officials in Imperial County
that began meeting recently to swap intelligence on ultralights.
"They're really not bringing a lot each time."
The risks can be fatal. A pilot died in November 2008 when his
ultralight strapped with more than 140 pounds of marijuana crashed in
a lettuce field in San Luis, Ariz. Another pilot who crashed in
Arizona was paralyzed from the waist down.
Ultralights flying low are difficult to see on radars at March Air
Force Base in Riverside, where CBP monitors air traffic along the
entire border. That means relying on Border Patrol agents and sheriff
deputies to be alert for the sound of unusual motors. They almost
always get there too late to find the pilot of the planes, which cost
$5,000 to $20,000.
"Either we get there and it's headed back, or it could already be
back there," said Tim Jennings, who heads the Drug Enforcement
Administration's Imperial County office.
Myers reported from Phoenix.