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Udall-Heller Ultralight Aircraft Drug Smuggling Bill Clears Senate

Previously Introduced by U.S. Rep. Giffords, Legislation Now Moves to House

December 9, 2011
  • WASHINGTON - U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Dean Heller (R-NV) today lauded the passage of legislation that will help improve border security by cracking down on smugglers who use ultralight aircraft to bring drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.  The Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2011, sponsored by Udall and Heller, passed unanimously in the Senate late Thursday night.

    The bill now moves to the U.S. House, where it passed overwhelmingly last Congress after being introduced by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ-08), who has long fought for increased security along the southwest border. Heller, then a member of the House, was an original cosponsor of that legislation. To watch video of Giffords' introduction of the bill, click here.

    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 U.S. and return to Mexico without ever landing in this country. To see video of an actual drug-drop by an ultralight aircraft, recorded for National Geographic's "Border Wars," click here.  For a photo of an ultralight aircraft used in drug smuggling, click here.

    The Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2011 would:

    • Give law enforcement agencies additional tools to combat this type of drug trafficking by closing a loophole in current law that allows smugglers who use ULAs to receive a lesser penalty than those who use airplanes or cars;
    • 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 ULAs.

    "As traffickers adopt new techniques for bringing drugs across our borders, we must give law enforcement the tools they need to stay a step ahead of smugglers and fully prosecute them," said Udall, a member of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. "I commend my colleagues in the Senate for voting to fix these outdated loopholes and encourage the House to do the same without delay."

    "Due to a loophole in current law, drug smugglers who use ultralights receive a lesser penalty than those who use airplanes or cars. Today, the Senate took an important step to provide law enforcement with the tools it needs to prosecute drug smugglers to the fullest extent of the law, which helps protect our communities from illicit substances. I am pleased to have the opportunity to work with both Senator Udall and Congresswoman Giffords in this effort," said Heller.

    "Congresswoman Giffords has called this legislation a critically important tool in the continuing fight to secure the border," said Pia Carusone, chief of staff to Giffords. "When she heard today that her goal is closer to becoming law, the congresswoman was thrilled. We thank Senators Udall and Heller for working to pass the bill in the Senate after she secured House passage last year."

    Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are original cosponsors of the legislation.

    "The illicit use of ultralight aircraft is on the rise.  Adopting this proposal will allow law enforcement to aggressively prosecute those who are using ultralight aircraft to smuggle drugs into our country," Bingaman 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," Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said. "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.  This bill assures that whether drug smuggling is done via airplane or ultralight vehicles, the criminal penalties should be the same."

    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 of marijuana.

    Office Locations

    • Albuquerque
      219 Central Ave NW
      Suite 210
      Albuquerque, NM 87102
      (505) 346-6791

    • Carlsbad
      102 W. Hagerman Street
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      Carlsbad, NM 88220
      (575) 234-0366

    • Eastside Office
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      Portales, NM 88130
      (575) 356-6811

    • Las Cruces
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      Las Cruces, NM 88001 
      (575) 526-5475

    • Santa Fe
      120 South Federal Place
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      Santa Fe, NM 87501
      (505) 988-6511

    • Washington, DC
      531 Hart Senate Office Building
      Washington DC, 20510
      (202) 224-6621