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Fri, Mar 13, 2009

US Border Officials Note Rise In Ultralight Smuggling Attempts

Three Small Aircraft Have Crashed Recently, All Loaded With Marijuana

As the United States has tightened security in recent years along its southern border with Mexico, drug traffickers have become more creative in their attempts to smuggle their wares into the country... and they're increasingly turning to ultralight aircraft to do it.

The Associated Press reports officials in Arizona know of at least three attempts to fly drugs into the country... all of which ended in failure for the smugglers. But they acknowledge there may have been successful attempts they don't know about.

"If the cartels feel they're successful, they'll go with it," said Rick Crocker with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Tucson. "If we can shut it down, they'll go with other means."

Officials don't know yet whether smugglers' use of ultralights is merely a fad, or will become a regular occurrence. They have seen trends emerging, however: all recent thwarted attempts to date have been at night, and so far all the flights have had marijuana onboard.

As ANN reported, a crashed ultralight discovered near San Luis, AZ last November had over 140 pounds of the narcotic onboard. Another had over 200 lbs of dope onboard... a heavy load for an aircraft usually meant to carry a single pilot, and nothing else as far as payload.

ICE officials say smugglers use the ultralights for short hops across the border; range isn't of paramount concern, so long as the flight ends up in the US.

This isn't the first time smugglers have tried flying drug-laden ultralights into the US; in fact, they were fairly common during the 1980s, until traffickers switched to larger planes capable of operating off short, crude runways.

The US responded by deploying six Aerostat blimps along the border to monitor for larger aircraft, and by the mid-1990s most attempts using larger planes had been grounded. That made ultralights -- cheap, with a minimal radar signature, and comparatively simple for inexperienced pilots to operate -- fashionable for smugglers once again.

"History is repeating itself," said Juan Munoz-Torres, spokesman for the US Customs and Border Protection air and marine program.

FMI: www.cbp.gov, www.ice.gov/

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