— No longer stuck on the ground, drug smugglers are taking to the air by using ultralight aircraft to bring their drugs into the United States through southern Arizona.
Federal officials say the ultralights packed with drugs can evade radar by flying at treetop levels.
It may be another way to smuggle drugs into the U.S. but it's certainly not the safest.
In the past four months, three of the kite-winged motorized aircraft have crashed while hauling loads of marijuana into Arizona.
One smuggler was caught after crash landing Oct. 10 near Marana, 80 miles north of the border.
A second pilot-smuggler died Nov. 18 when his machine smashed into a Yuma lettuce field.
A third unidentified pilot clipped a power line in December while being chased by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection drone.
Because the suspect was paralyzed in the crash near Tucson, prosecutors elected to deport him to Mexico rather than file charges.
Rick Crocker, deputy special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Tucson, said the cheap, low-flying aircraft present a new challenge for drug interdiction along the border.
"The ultralight smuggling may be due to the hardening of the border (with greater enforcement)," Crocker said. "We're trying to get a handle on it."
During the 1980s and '90s, smugglers used alternative small airplanes frequently for delivering drugs to America.
But greater improvements in radar, interceptor aircraft and an Aerostat surveillance blimp near Fort Huachuca took a toll on smugglers who decided it wasn't worth it.
Since then, smugglers have thought it over and decided ultralights are a cheap, stealthy alternative for bringing drugs across the border.
The plane is powered by a rear propeller and maneuvered by a pilot seated on what resembles a tricycle.
The wings are triangular and made of fabric.
Two-seaters are offered on the Internet for about $20,000, a minimal expense considering the estimated $180,000 value of a single marijuana load.
Crocker would not discuss details of ICE investigations except to say, "We're trying to identify where the aircraft are purchased, who the bad guys are and the whole nine yards."
The people who sell ultralights say they are not intended to serve as a cargo plane for bringing pot to Arizona.
"These aircraft are designed to carry a person, not a payload," said John Kemmeries, who distributes ultralights in Arizona.
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral