LAS CRUCES — They are small, single-seat aircraft resembling motorized hang gliders. They fly low, evade radar detection, drop their loads and return to Mexico without ever landing on American soil.
Meet the ultralight — the latest aerial asset in the arsenal of smugglers hauling drugs into the United States from Mexico.
A downed ultralight with 134 pounds of marijuana attached to its underside was recovered this week in the state’s southwest bootheel — just days after Sen. Tom Udall and a Republican colleague introduced legislation to provide harsher prison terms for smugglers who use ultralight aircraft.
The ultralights are not classified as aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration, so drug-traffickers who use them are not subject to stiffer penalties under aviation smuggling provisions.
The legislation introduced Tuesday by Udall and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., would close that loophole and make the maximum penalty the same as that for smuggling by plane or automobile — up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
State Police spokesman Sgt. Tim Johnson said the ultralight discovered Thursday appeared to have crashed after running out of fuel in a storm, and the rainfall made tracking a suspect impossible. The street value of the seized marijuana was estimated at $54,000.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection was unable on Friday to provide data on cross-border incursions involving ultralight aircraft in New Mexico.
Government officials have said it appears drug-smuggling organizations have turned increasingly to the use of ultralights to haul and drop drugs in the United States as border security has tightened with thousands more Border Patrol officers and the addition of border fences and vehicle barriers.
The Los Angeles Times reported in May there were 228 cross-border incursions by ultralight aircraft in the Southwest during the fiscal year that ended September 2010, almost twice as many as the previous year. There were 71 incursions by ultralights this fiscal year through April.
“Without equal penalties for all types of transportation smuggling, whether by car or plane or ultralight, our law enforcement officials are essentially fighting with one hand tied behind their backs,” said Udall, a member of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. “This bill would give them an additional enforcement tool to punish drug traffickers and keep our borders secure.”
The same legislation was introduced in 2010 by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., whose district borders New Mexico’s southwest corner. The legislation passed in the House.
Johnson said he believed Thursday’s capture of the downed ultralight aircraft near the former site of the Playas smelter was only the second time one of the drug-ferrying craft had been recovered in New Mexico.
Border Patrol agents captured the first aircraft, loaded with 242 pounds of marijuana, after it landed on a dry lake bed in Hidalgo County in May 2009. Three people were arrested. The ultralight is now on display at the National Border Patrol Museum in El Paso.
Most incursions occur in Arizona and California, and the flights are perilous.
One pilot died in November 2008 after crashing in a lettuce field near a southwest Arizona border town, and another was left paralyzed after his ultralight crashed into power lines south of Tucson in December 2008.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal