Drug Smugglers Using Ultralight Aircraft
criminal penalties for drug smuggling with radar-evading, single-seat
companion bill passed House of Representatives with bipartisan
November 18, 2011
Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein
(D-Calif.) co-sponsored a bipartisan amendment to the 2012 National
Defense Authorization Act to help improve border security by cracking down
on smugglers who use ultralight aircraft to bring drugs across the U.S.-Mexico
border. The amendment introduced by Sen.
Tom Udall (D-N.M.), is cosponsored by Sens. Feinstein, Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Jeff
Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). It is identical to legislation Sen. Udall introduced earlier this year.
The same bill passed overwhelmingly
in the House of Representatives last Congress after being introduced by Rep. Gabrielle
Giffords (D-Ariz.), who has long fought for increased security along the southwest
Every year, hundreds of ultralight
aircraft (ULAs) are flown across the southern border and can carry several hundred
pounds of narcotics. ULAs are small, single-seat aircraft that are favored by
smugglers because they are inexpensive, relatively quiet and can fly at night
without lights. They are often able to evade radar detection and can drop a load
of narcotics in the United States and return to Mexico without ever landing in
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics
Control, said: “The use of ultralight vehicles is yet another example of the extreme
measures drug smugglers will use to get drugs into the United States. In just
a six month period, there were close to two hundred reported incidents of use
of these ultralight vehicles and on relatively calm wind nights, Imperial County
has experienced as much as four incidents per day.
amendment assures that whether drug smuggling is done via airplane or ultralight
vehicles, the criminal penalties should be the same,” continued Feinstein.
“This amendment would give law enforcement
a stronger enforcement tool to punish drug traffickers and keep our borders secure.
Without equal penalties for all types of transportation smuggling 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.
“Due to a loophole in current law,
drug smugglers who use ultralights receive a lesser penalty than those who use
airplanes or cars. This amendment will provide law enforcement the tools it needs
to prosecute drug smugglers to the fullest extent of the law. I am pleased to
join my colleagues in this bipartisan effort to crack down on these illegal activities,”
“Congresswoman Giffords has led the
fight to crack down on drug smugglers who use ultralight aircraft to traffic illegal
drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Pia Carusone, Giffords’ chief
of staff. “We appreciate Senators Udall and Heller carrying on her determination
to stop this escalating threat.”
“Ultralight aircraft are increasingly
being used to smuggle drugs into our country. This amendment ensures that the
penalties for those caught using this form of trafficking are as stiff as those
for smugglers bringing drugs into the country by plane,” Bingaman said.
“We must keep our borders safe for
our families and communities,” Gillibrand said. “It is important to close
this loophole to help our Border Patrol prosecute those that illegally smuggle
narcotics into the United States via ultralight aircraft.”
This amendment would:
Establish the same penalties for trafficking, whether
by plane, automobile or ULA – up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Add an attempt and conspiracy provision to the aviation
smuggling law to allow prosecutors to charge people other than the pilot
who are involved in aviation smuggling.
Direct the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department
of Homeland Security to collaborate in identifying equipment and technology
used by DOD that could be used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to detect
Under existing law, ULAs are not categorized
as aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration, which means they do not fall
under the aviation smuggling provisions of the Tariff Act of 1930.
Recent news reports have shown that
Mexican organized crime groups are increasingly using ULAs to drop marijuana bundles
in agricultural fields and desert scrub across the U.S. border. The Los Angeles
Times reported in May that the number of incursions by ultralights reached 228 in
the last federal fiscal year, almost double from the previous year. In August
an ultralight vehicle crashed in the bootheel of New Mexico carrying 134 pounds