February 10, 2012

Giffords Anti-Drug Trafficking Bill Becomes Law

WASHINGTON - Anti-drug trafficking legislation sponsored by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the U.S. House and U.S. Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Dean Heller (R-NV) in the U.S. Senate was signed into law today by President Obama. The Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act wascosponsored in the Senate by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

The new law will improve border security by cracking down on smugglers who use ultralight aircraft to traffic drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. Last month, the legislation passed the Senate and House following an emotional farewell tribute to Rep. Giffords, who resigned as a Member of Congress to focus on rehabilitation. Rep. Giffords was present for President Obama's signing of the legislation today. Click here for photos from the event.

"Today's bill signing represents the conclusion of a three-year effort by Gabby to crack down on the growing threat of smugglingdrugs with ultralight aircraft," said U.S. Navy Captain Mark Kelly, husband of Giffords. "Senators Udall and Heller have been valuable partners in Gabby's work to secure the border and led Senate passage of this critical bill."

"Gabby has always been, and always will be, a champion for stronger border security," said Udall. "This legislation is a tribute to her service to Arizona and I'm proud to have worked with her on it. Law enforcement officers in our border states are now better equipped to combat the ever-changing techniques employed by traffickers to smuggle illegal drugs into our communities."

"It has been an honor and privilege to work with Gabby in the House and I am very pleased that this bill has been signed into law," said Heller. "Passing this legislation is a fitting tribute and commemoration of all Gabby's accomplishments in the House. Her hard work and commitment will certainly be missed and I wish her nothing but the best as she works towards her recovery."

"This new law will help us more effectively target drug smugglers and bring them to justice," Bingaman said. "I'm glad that the president moved so quickly to sign this bill, and that Rep. Giffords was there to see it come to fruition."

"Congresswoman Giffords always put her constituents before all else. She fought tirelessly to do right by Arizona, strengthen its security, and keep her state safe," Gillibrand said. "I am pleased President Obama is honoring my dear friend Gabby's incredible record of fighting for Arizona, and stepping up the fight against drug trafficking along America's southern border."

Every year, hundreds of ultralight aircraft (ULAs) are flown across the southern border and each 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 withoutlights. They are often able to evade radar detection and can drop a load ofnarcotics 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.

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.

The Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act:

  • Gives 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;
  • Establishes the same penalties for trafficking, whether by plane, automobile or ULA - of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine;
  • Adds 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;
  • Directs the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Homeland Security to collaborate in identifying equipment and technology to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection detect ULAs.

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 last May that the number of incursions by ultralights reached 228 in the last federal fiscal year, almost double from the previous year. Last August, an ultralight vehicle crashed in the bootheel of New Mexico carrying 134 pounds of marijuana.