FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
In law enforcement, we always see the ingenuity and creativity of the criminal's mind. Whatever technology is developed, it seems that the criminal element does a bit of their own research and development to defeat the defenses. When a new anti-car theft product was first introduced, many potential car thieves were found with small cans of Freon in their possession. Apparently, they would "freeze" the lock and then sharply bang it with a hammer, in some cases, causing the lock to break. No group has been as creative as drug smugglers. Border Patrol agents and customs agents have millions of stories of how the smugglers attempt to transport their product. Ranging from underground tunnels to creative hiding places in cars and trucks; it seems the only limiting factor is their imagination! Recently, a drug smuggler was arrested wearing a cast he had molded from cocaine onto his body.
Recently, authorities in Arizona have discovered the return of a trend that was seen over 20 years ago. Drug smugglers have begun to use ultralight aircraft to transport the drugs over the Mexican border. The ultralights are very small and quiet. Because of their small size, they will not show up on air traffic control radar screens or on the screens of the various law enforcement agencies that are "watching" the border. The three most recent cases ended badly for the pilots/smugglers: one crashed and killed the pilot, one crashed into power lines and the pilot was paralyzed and one landed safely, only to be quickly apprehended. Naturally, these flights are conducted at night and without any regard for safety. In at least one of the cases, the ultralight was rigged with a cage that could hold the drugs and be released while airborne. The pilot could then return to Mexico without having landed. The biggest disadvantage to an ultralight is the relatively limited amount of drugs they can carry. However as one ICE official commented, "If it works, they will go with it!"
About 20 years ago, ultralights were used in some cases to smuggle drugs across the border. These very small aircraft were retired when the smugglers began using larger aircraft that could slip in and out the U.S. with relative ease. It appears that as the border crossing tightens, the drug cartels are re-examining any and all methods for transporting their products.
What does this mean for the patrol officer?
Because of their very limited range, this type of activity should only affect the states that border Mexico and even then, only those jurisdictions that either border Mexico directly or lie a few miles from the border. Patrol officers might want to pay closer attention to that 3:00 AM call about a "UFO" flying around. Yes, most likely it is the local UFO specialist calling in another report, but it might certainly be something else.
If you do check with the local air traffic control tower or radar center, they likely will not have shown any activity in the area as ultralights are generally too small to produce a radar return. If the ultralight is planning a rendezvous with a ground vehicle, be particularly aware of those vehicles with portable GPS, especially if they have lat/long coordinates programmed in as opposed to a specific street address. It is more likely the smugglers would choose open fields as opposed to a backyard to drop their goods. It is also likely that the ground team scouted out the drop location days in advance. If you receive a seemingly routine "trespass" call at a desolate ranch or location, keep in mind this could be a ground team searching for a suitable drop location. Be aware of a campsite at which it appears someone spent some time for no apparent reason.
Not just for drug smugglers
Even though the ultralight drug smugglers should only be a problem for those agencies that border Mexico, ultralights have been used in the past for other criminal activity. At a United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York a decade ago, an activist, promoting his particular cause, took off from the Queens side of the East River and flew towards the United Nations. A helicopter from the NYPD Aviation Unit intercepted the ultralight and kept him away from the United Nations. Very likely the life that was saved was his own, as several counter-snipers from the NYPD Emergency Services Unit had the pilot in their sights and were ready to terminate the threat if he had flown much closer and posed a threat to the hundreds of delegates and ambassadors from around the world.
The lesson: always prepare for anything!
Ultralight aircraft are indeed fun to fly and of course, the vast majority of people that take up the sport are in it for the fun, thrill and adventure. One ultralight pilot remarked that it is truly the closest thing to flying like a bird. However, in law enforcement, we must always stay a step ahead, and think, "What if?" Always keep all possibilities in mind!