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Mexican Marijuana Smugglers Turn To

Ultralight Aircraft
Small, underused airports are becoming entry points for the illegal
importation of Mexican Marijuana. Airports in places like Palo Alto, CA,
become desirable to these sorts of criminals, because there is little police
presenance at the airport, and with over 6M people in the Bay Area, the
many small airports operated by County governments offer comfortable,
relatively safe (from law enforcement) locations to bring this contraband into
the US.

Ultralight weight aircraft have been touted as one of the technological

advancements that warrant the continued operation of the Palo Alto Airport.
The fact that these smaller jets can operate out of the Palo Alto Airport can
not have gone unnoticed by people looking for airfields to use for their illegal

If the City of Palo Alto were to operate the the Palo Alto Airport (PAO), would
the local Palo Alto Police be remotely interested in working with the US DEA
(US Drug Enforcement Agency), or take a more hands-off, parochial view that
fighting these sorts of crime belong in the domain of the Federal
Government--and turn a blind eye to the use of public property (a City
owned/operated airport) to provide a more-of-less safe-haven for the Mexican
Drug Cartels?

The following two articles, from USA Today, and from HSToday.com, provide
details on the Mexican Cartels use of these aircraft, and possible legislation
intended to crack down on the Cartels.



Posted on Friday, June 4, 2010

Mexican marijuana smugglers turn to ultralight aircraft

By Tim Johnson | McClatchy Newspapers

SONOYTA, Mexico — Several times a week, drug smugglers somewhere along

Mexico's border with the United States strap themselves into low-flying
ultralight aircraft and take off with loads of marijuana.

They usually fly at night with no lights and often, they're guided only by the
dim screen of a handheld satellite navigation tool, looking for a precise spot
in the desert.

The smugglers generally don't land. They've modified the ultralight aircraft
with drop baskets that can hold 150 to 250 pounds of marijuana wrapped in
brick-sized units and covered in plastic. They move a lever, and the bricks fall
to the desert for ground crews to pick up and smuggle onward across the

It's a perilous tactic, and pilots can break limbs or die in crashes.

"It's a fairly risky endeavor for them to try to do this. ... They do fly close to
the ground, which can be dangerous because of power lines," said Steve
Cribby, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Ultralight aircraft evolved out of hang gliders, and the Federal Aviation
Administration doesn't classify them as "aircraft." That legal loophole allows
dopers to bring in sizable loads of marijuana and get lighter jail terms than if
they'd used a car or small airplane.

"It's a pretty new phenomenon," said Andrew S. Gordon, of the general

counsel's office at the Department of Homeland Security.

A Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, Gabrielle Giffords, proposed last

month to close that loophole with an Ultralight Smuggling Prevention Act.
Giffords called ultralights "the latest threat to border security."

Giffords said the Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operation
Center in Riverside, Calif., detected "193 suspected incursions and 135
confirmed incursions by ultralights from Oct. 1, 2009 through April 15th of
this year."

Arizona has become a gateway for Mexican marijuana. Last year, law
enforcement agents seized about 545 metric tons of marijuana in the Tucson
sector, which has a 262-mile border with Mexico, more than all other sectors

On May 16, the North American Aerospace Defense Command scrambled two
F-16 jet fighters to intercept an ultralight aircraft crossing into Arizona and
followed it for about 30 minutes before it flew back into Mexico.

Ultralights have fabric wings attached to aluminum tubing. Small two-stroke

engines that sound much like a whining lawn mower, power rear propellers.
The pilots sit in sling seats that give the vehicles the appearance of winged

I hate to say it, but those things are very stealthy aircraft," said Sgt. Rick
Pearson of the air support unit in the sheriff's office of Pima County, Ariz.
"They don't have much of a reflective character (to catch radar signals)."

When Mexican smugglers began using small airplanes in the 1980s and
1990s, the U.S. government responded by deploying six Aerostat surveillance
blimps to strategic border locations, thwarting air smuggling for many years.

But the Aerostats, tethered by 15,000-foot cables, return to their ground pads
at night to avoid snaring legal aircraft that might get entangled in the cables.

To avoid ground-based radar at night, the ultralights generally fly low, tracing
routes over illuminated highways, although authorities have tracked them
flying at altitudes of 12,000 feet.

Giffords said some of the smugglers' aircraft have been detected "flying up to
200 miles into our country from Mexico."

Both humanitarian concerns and legal considerations prevent law

enforcement from firing on the ultralights when they spot them.

"There are rules on deadly force," Gordon said, noting that the ultralight
pilots wouldn't survive a strafing. "If you shoot them, you're going to kill

Such legal considerations give the traffickers leeway.

"They don't care about flying with their lights on. They don't care about flying
at the proper designated altitudes for aircraft. They don't care about flying
through controlled air spaces," Pearson said.

H.L. Cooper, a flight instructor for ultralights in the Tucson area, said he's
regularly approached by people whom he presumes are smugglers.

"The first thing out of their mouth is, 'How much weight can it carry?'" Cooper

Drug gangs in Mexico care little about pilot training.

"They are getting some 'gofer' out there to jump on these things, and then
it's, 'Hasta la vista, baby,'" Cooper said.

The vehicles are usually overloaded, making them unstable. "If you hit some
turbulence, the aircraft can start to break apart," he said.

In one of the earliest known incidents of the use of ultralights for drug
smuggling, Jesus Isaias Iriarte, a 25-year-old pilot carrying 210 pounds of
marijuana, crashed in a field north of Tucson in October 2008. After a plea
deal, he was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison.

Under the toughened measures in Rep. Giffords' proposal, smugglers could

be given sentences of up to 20 years and $250,000 fines.

Iriarte's attorney, Charles Slack-Mendez, said it's not difficult for cartels to
recruit flyers from Mexican beach resorts, where ultralights are common.

"My understanding is that they are not all that difficult to drive. It's not much
more difficult than a motorcycle," he said.

Pearson, the sheriff's sergeant, said traffickers might not stop at smuggling
marijuana. They will also bring cocaine and heroin — or explosives.

"Here's my big concern," Pearson said. "Four hundred pounds of C-4 (plastic
explosive) will do a heck of a lot of damage. If that were a light airplane, or if
that were a 757 talking to someone, I bet the Air Force would shoot them


U.S. Ultralight Association





by Anthony L. Kimery

Monday, 27 September 2010

CBP officials say the problem today isn't as bad as it was earlier in the year

At the height of border enforcement officials’ concerns earlier this year over
the use of ultralight aircraft by Mexico’s transnational criminal organizations
(TCOs) to transport narcotics across remote areas of the border into the US,
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) introduced the
Ultralight Smuggling Prevention Act. Last week, with “overwhelming
bipartisan support,” the House passed the legislation which closes loopholes
to crack down on the TCOs’ use of the small, gasoline-powered aircraft.

“Every year hundreds of ultralights laden with illegal narcotics are flown over
our Southern border,” Giffords said last week on the House floor during
debate on the bill. “Ultralights are the latest weapon in the ever-expanding
arsenal of the narco-terrorists, capable not only of transporting drugs, but
any number of dangerous payloads.”
“The use of ultralights by drug smugglers has become more common
because of their ability to fly low to the ground and take off and land
quickly,” Heller added. “However, due to a loophole in current law, drug
smugglers who use ultralights receive a lesser penalty than those who use
airplanes or cars. This legislation will provide law enforcement with the tools
they need to prosecute drug smugglers to the fullest extent of the law.”

During Homeland Security Today’s month-long investigation on the border in

June and July throughout Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, numerous Border
Patrol and other Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials - as well as
sheriffs of border-state counties - noted that the TCOs’ employment of
ultralights to smuggle drugs had increased.

However, Mark Johnson, Director, Air Operations, Tucson Air Branch, CBP’s
Office of Air and Marine, told Homeland Security Today that once CBP
became aware of the uptick in flights of ultralights to transport drugs across
the border, air operations in coordination with Border Patrol agents on the
ground began to crack down on the flights.

“It isn’t any longer as big of a problem as it had been,” Johnson said at his
Tucson office, noting, though, that the TCOs “will continue to innovate and
use whatever methods of transportation they think they can get away with.”

Released earlier this year, the National Drug Intelligence Center’s (NDIC)
2010 National Drug Threat Assessment identified ultralights as one of newest
ways that cartels are smuggling drugs into the United States.

Whether or not the TCOs’ use of ultralights to smuggle drugs across the
border in the dead of night has been dampened by CBP’s aggressive
response [CBP said the numbers of intercepted flights are down], Giffords’
legislation would provide tougher prosecutorial powers.

“This legislation will significantly increase the penalties for the use of
ultralights to smuggle drugs,” the union said in a statement. “It will give law
enforcement agencies an important weapon to crack down on the drug
cartels’ newest method of smuggling drugs into our country. Security of the
homeland requires laws that give us the authority to carry our mission and
this bill addresses a serious gap in current law.”

Under the bill, individuals caught smuggling using ultralights can be

prosecuted for using the aircraft in addition to being prosecuted for the drugs
in their possession. When they are convicted of this new offense, they can
receive a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. This
bill will establish the same penalties for smuggling drugs on ultralights as for
those who smuggle using airplanes or automobiles.
“It is time for the federal government to get ahead of these new tactics and
crack down on the use of ultralights to out-maneuver our law enforcement,”
Giffords said. “The Ultralight Smuggling Prevention Act is a common-sense
solution that will give our law enforcement agencies and prosecutors
additional tools they need to combat drug smuggling.”

The Act (HR 5307), would amend the Tariff Act of 1930 to include “ultralight
vehicle” under the aviation smuggling provisions. Ultralights are not
categorized as aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), so they
do not fall under this smuggling provision.

“This legislation will go after the newest method that the drug cartels use to
smuggle drugs – ultralights,” Giffords explained, pointing out that “these
single-pilot aircraft are capable of flying low and can land and take off
quickly. We have reports of them flying up to 200 miles into our country from

According to CBP’s Air and Marine Operation Center in Riverside, Calif., 193
suspected incursions and 135 confirmed incursions by ultralights took place
between Oct. 1, 2009 and April 15.

But by the end of July while Homeland Security Today was on the border,
Johnson said “we’ve slowed down the [TCOs’] use” of ultralights with
increased aerial enforcement specifically targeted ultralight flights.

According to the NDIC’s 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment, “Mexican

DTOs rely on overland transportation methods to smuggle drugs into the
United States, but also use alternative methods, including “some increased
use of low-flying small or ultralight aircraft, which most often are used to
smuggle marijuana.”

“For example,” the assessment stated, “in the Yuma, Arizona, area, at least
eight ultralight aircraft have been spotted since October 2008, after only
sporadic reporting of such incidents along the entire border area in previous
years. Additionally, in mid-November 2009, at least three suspected ultralight
incursions were reported in New Mexico - two in Luna County and one in
Hidalgo County.”

The bill received the support of many in Arizona, including Local 2544 of the
National Border Patrol Council, the Tucson chapter of the union that
represents more than 17,000 Border Patrol Agents and support staff.