For years, federal agents have looked out, across and under to find drug smugglers entering San Diego County. Nowadays, however, they’re increasingly looking up.
That’s because ultralight aircraft are frequently being used to smuggle drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.
The use of ultralight aircraft flying under the radar and at night presents an increasingly concerning problem for U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents tasked with protecting our nation’s borders.
“They just come in, drop, and go right back,” explained Deputy Special Agent in Charge Joe Garcia with San Diego’s branch of Homeland Security Investigations.
Ultralight aircraft are like gliders, but with engines and the pilots are seated.
“Essentially it’s a lawn mower with wings,” said Garcia, who is worried about public safety given the increased use by cartels in the past decade.
The pilots fly at night to avoid detection and carry hundreds of pounds of drugs in a basket-type contraption beneath the aircraft. A lever allows the pilot to release the drugs from the air at a designated drop zone. The plane rarely touches the ground.
“It never lands physically in the U.S., unless it crashes,” said Garcia, pointing to Friday’s crash in the Laguna Mountains as a perfect example.
In that incident, federal agents found roughly 250 pounds of marijuana along with a busted ultralight aircraft in the remote area of eastern San Diego County.
The aircraft had slammed into a dead oak tree before crashing onto the ground. There were no traces of blood, so authorities believe the pilot walked away from the wreck without serious injuries.
“We believe the pilot walked away, but what if he hit a house? Hit a car?” said Garcia.
A newly released California Attorney General Report cites more than 200 incidents involving ultralight aircraft and drug smuggling since 2008, when the first sightings were reported. While the use of ultralight aircraft isn't expected to outpace panga boats, another popular smuggling conduit, the report says smuggling by air could become more difficult to combat as technology surrounding drones advances.
Local agents say most of those cases occurred outside San Diego County but authorities now working to find new ways to combat the problem before someone on the ground gets hurt.