RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Mexican drug traffickers have long been creative. And one of the latest in the smugglers' evolving methods - using ultralight airplanes to drop a few hundred pounds of marijuana at a time into the U.S. From the public radio collaboration Changing America, KJZZ's Peter O'Dowd reports.
PETER O'DOWD: The desert terrain outside of Nogales, Arizona - a gauntlet of hills and creosote. The sun is down. The moon glows above the mountains. And Kevin Kelly stands with his back to the wind. He runs the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office here.
Mr. KEVIN KELLY (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): Right now you're in the - one of the key marijuana corridors in the country.
O'DOWD: The federal government says the number of ultralights illegally crossing into the United States nearly doubled from 2009 to last year, when agents recorded 228 cases.
Kelly says the pilots often fly on one seat, exposed to the open air. That seat is attached to a glider wing and an engine. With about three gallons of gas in the tank, their range is no more than a few dozen miles.
Mr. KELLY: The ultralight sounds like a faint lawnmower, and it gets stronger and stronger as it comes toward you.
(Soundbite of plane)
O'DOWD: I'm standing in the dirt between two runways about 40 miles south of Phoenix. And there are a few pilots taking off and landing. They're doing touch-and-go's right in front of me.
He's coming about 50 feet away. Here we go.
(Soundbite of plane)
O'DOWD: He's literally just skirting along the road.
(Soundbite of plane)
O'DOWD: Wow. That was pretty amazing.
Calm your excitement. This is not an actual drug drop. I asked a flight instructor to give me a demonstration. But it is a pretty good example of how smugglers would operate at the border. And legitimate pilots like Denny Reed aren't really thrilled with the concept.
Mr. DENNY REED (Pilot): This feels like sitting on the top of a flagpole.
O'DOWD: Reed is standing in front of his own one-seat ultralight. He says the aircraft is completely safe in the right hands. But ultralights are like mosquitoes in the wind.
Mr. REED: To fly this aircraft at night, overloaded, in inclement weather, you've opened up an envelope for disaster in itself, regardless of what it might be carrying.
Detective NICK ACEVEDO (Nogales Police Department): Pilots have a lot of guts.
O'DOWD: Back in Nogales, police Detective Nick Acevedo marvels at the drug smugglers' ingenuity and the risk they're willing to take.
Det. ACEVEDO: You know, how they can come in and successfully drop 280 pounds of marijuana basically on somebody's lap.
O'DOWD: At least two ultralights loaded with pot have crashed in Arizona. A few years ago, one did a deadly pirouette into a lettuce farm, leaving the pilot's body twisted in the wreckage. Since 2009, Arizona agents alone have seized 10 aircraft and about 11,000 pounds of pot a drop in the bucket.
Mr. JOE GARCIA (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): They have this diversified portfolio. And this is your high-risk stock. If it pays off, great.
O'DOWD: ICE Deputy Special Agent in Charge Joe Garcia says traffickers are happy to take the risk. For delivering a package in the desert worth 160 grand, a pilot might go home with just 2,000 bucks. So ultralights are cheap, and getting more popular.
Due west of Nogales, in El Centro, California, agents have logged at least 30 cases, nearly all of them in the past several months. Garcia says late last year the San Diego area recorded its first ultralight incursion. Beefed up border fences in California have forced the traffickers to adapt.
Mr. GARCIA: We've pushed them underground with tunnels. And we're pushing them out to the sea. And now, you know, we've pushed them into air. Now, why not try different things?
O'DOWD: And that's the consistent message from federal agents. Ultralights bring in just a few hundred pounds of pot at a time. For now the method works. And it's proof that even illegal businesses look for ways to diversify.
For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Phoenix.
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