After several years of cat-and-mouse games with Mexican smugglers who tunnel under southwest land crossings, Customs and Border Protection has had to play defense in the air.
Ultra-light aircraft have emerged as the latest challenge to agents, said Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher.
“When you think that we’ve got it figured out, that threat — as the threat does — is going to change, and going to morph. We have to be as agile,” Fisher said at a recent National Defense Industrial Association homeland security symposium.
The five-mile stretch between the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa crossings south of San Diego is one of the most heavily fortified sections that the agency patrols. Smugglers responded by digging numerous tunnels in the area. Now that ground-penetrating radar has been employed to ferret out the underground structures, the cartels have taken to the air in ultra-light aircraft, Fisher said.
“Right now, we don’t have an interdiction policy,” Fisher said. CBP tries to identify them, launch air assets and “provide an armed escort back south.”
The profits for a successful operation can be enormous, though.
Ultra-light aircraft kits cost anywhere from $3,000 to $30,000, according to the all-about-ultralights.com website. A pilot weighing about 150 pounds could leave another 100 pounds in excess capacity. With current street values of cocaine at about $100 per gram, one quick flight over the border could gain cartels $4.5 million.
The latest National Drug Threat Assessment carried out by the Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center, said there has been some speculation that this method could be used to bring terrorists or weapons of mass destruction across the border.
However, “Intelligence and law enforcement reporting indicates that [drug cartels] have not demonstrated any interest in or intent to smuggle on behalf of terrorists,” the report said.
Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., introduced the Ultra-light Smuggling Prevention Act this year, which seeks to increase penalties for those caught flying over the border. It passed the House in September, and has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.