Smugglers tap old air strategy
Use of ultralights may be sign land routes are blocked
By Marisa Gerber
SPECIAL FOR THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 08.09.2009
Smugglers are going to the air more often to get marijuana loads across the Arizona border.
They've resurrected the dangerous method of transporting drugs using single-occupancy aircraft called ultralights, say U.S. officials.
Since Oct. 1 in Arizona, eight ultralights have been seized; 18 arrests have been made in association with these smuggling attempts; and a total of 4,500 pounds of marijuana have been confiscated, said Rick Crocker, deputy special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Tucson office. Last fiscal year, there were no recorded ultralight smuggling attempts.
One appeal of the aircraft is that they can take off and land almost anywhere
Smugglers usually carry between 200 pounds and 300 pounds of marijuana in the ultralights, even though the aircraft aren't designed to carry any cargo, Crocker said. At least one pilot has died, and another was paralyzed.
The trend is a refreshed smuggling tactic that was common in the early 1990s, said Juan Muñoz-Torres, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine.
He said that in order to slow the trend in the 1990s, the government saturated the sky with aircraft focused solely on spotting ultralights. The increased surveillance was successful, and the ultralight smuggling attempts largely disappeared until recently.
Crocker said he thinks smugglers have turned back to using the aircraft as a result of increased enforcement on the ground that makes it harder to get across the border.
"There is so much pressure on land," Muñoz-Torres said. "The only other option is the air."
Suspicious noise detected
On July 15, Douglas police officers and Border Patrol agents heard what sounded like a low-flying aircraft near a sprawling Douglas property with a couple of different buildings on it, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Vincent Picard said.
They reported the suspicious noise to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which then set up night surveillance near the property. Six days later agents saw an ultralight in that area and approached the property. They arrested a man who was trying to flee in a white Chevy truck.
Agents found 1,141 pounds of marijuana. Picard said some of the bundles were on the ground and looked like they had just been dropped, but it was unclear how many pounds were dropped from the ultralight and how many were already on the property. Agents also found $7,272 in cash and various items, which they think were used in the smuggling operation.
They found two long, fluorescent spotlights lying on the ground in the shape of an "X" and used as a target for the air drop, officials said.
"X marks the spot, so to speak," Crocker said.
Picard said smugglers sometimes land and unload the bundles, but usually the drugs are dropped from the air.
The smugglers attach a make-shift cage under the aircraft and have a lever to release the drug load, Muñoz-Torres said.
In the Douglas incident, the pilot released the drugs from the ultralight and presumably returned to Mexico safely, Crocker said.
But not all of these smuggling attempts run so smoothly.
Crossings are dangerous
In November, a man died when his ultralight crashed into a lettuce field in Yuma.
And in December, a man was paralyzed when he hit power lines and crashed southwest of Tucson near Casino Del Sol during his night flight.
Muñoz-Torres said a majority of the smuggling attempts are made in the early morning or late at night because it's harder for officials to see the ultralights when it's dark.
That also makes it dangerous for the pilots, who fly the aircraft without any light.
Ultralights aren't inherently dangerous but can be when they're modified and used out of their design parameters, said Larry Tiffin, operations manager at the Nogales (Ariz.) International Airport.
"The smugglers have never had respect for life," Muñoz-Torres said, "So they really don't care about the person delivering the drugs: They just care that the drugs get across the border."
Although the ultralight incidents since the beginning of the federal fiscal year on Oct. 1 aren't isolated to the Southern Arizona border, they are certainly more prevalent here, Muñoz-Torres said. He said there was one incident in Texas, and four in New Mexico since Oct. 1.
The government hasn't started any new operations to foil these aerial crossings, but officials are paying extra attention to the skies and looking at all small radar "signatures," Muñoz-Torres said. Several people's sole job is to watch radar for just such indicators, he said.
They are not easy to spot.
Ultralights create such a small blip, he said, that they can look the same as a flock of geese on the radar.
Marisa Gerber is a UA student who's apprenticing at the Star. Contact her at 807-7777 or email@example.com
Smugglers tap old air strategy