August 02, 2011

Udall and Heller Target Ultralight Aircraft Drug Smugglers with Increased Penalties

Bipartisan Bill Previously Introduced, Overwhelmingly Passed in House by U.S. Rep. Giffords

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Dean Heller (R-NV) today introduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate to help improve border security by cracking down on smugglers who use ultralight aircraft to bring drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The legislation previously passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. House 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 view an image of an ultralight aircraft used in drug smuggling, click here.

The legislation 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. The legislation would establish the same penalties for trafficking, whether by plane, automobile or ULA - up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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.

"Keeping dangerous drugs from crossing our border into the U.S. means keeping our eyes on the skies as well as on the ground. Without equal penalties for all types of transportation smuggling - whether by car or plane or ultralight - our law enforcement officials are essentially fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. This bill would give them an additional enforcement tool to punish drug traffickers and keep our borders secure," said Udall, a member of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

"The recent escalation in drug-related violence in Mexico has placed a national spotlight on southwestern states. However, we also need to address the vulnerability of states like Nevada that have become a passageway for drug trafficking from Mexico to the central and eastern areas of the United States. The use of ultralight aircrafts by drug smugglers has become more common because of their ability to fly low to the ground and take off and land quickly. Due to a current loophole in the law, drug smugglers who use low-flying small aircrafts receive a lesser punishment than those who use cars or airplanes. This legislation will provide law enforcement with the tools they need to prosecute drug smugglers and break down existing drug trafficking channels. I was pleased to work with Congresswoman Giffords on this issue in the House. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to pass this bill and send it to the President's desk for signature," Heller said.

"Ultralights are one of the latest tactics used by cartels to smuggle drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border," said Pia Carusone, chief of staff for Rep. Giffords. "Congresswoman Giffords introduced and passed the Ultralight Smuggling Prevention Act last year because she believes we must devote every resource possible to combat cartels. Her legislation will provide law enforcement needed tools to out-maneuver drug smugglers and get ahead of their ever-changing tactics."

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. Seventy-one have been detected in the current fiscal year through April, according to border authorities.

In addition to increasingly penalties for ULA drug smuggling, the bill would also 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. Finally, it would 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.

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

"In recent years, we've seen an increase in the illicit use of ultralight aircraft - particularly in New Mexico's bootheel. This legislation would give law enforcement more leverage in prosecuting those who rely on this type of aircraft to transport drugs into the United States," Bingaman said.