The Ultralightness of Smuggling

COMMENTARY Homeland Security

The Ultralightness of Smuggling

Apr 21, 2009 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

On the border, you expect strange things to happen. When the Yuma County Sherriff's Office got the call to report to a crash site--a lettuce field just north of San Luis--officers didn't know what to expect. New Mexico had its legendary UFO encounter at Roswell--maybe this would put Arizona's San Luis on the map. What they found was pretty strange indeed.

Responding officers had lots of company on the scene: Border Patrol, San Luis police, local firefighters… a dead body, a strange craft--and over 140 lbs of marijuana.

The dead man was the pilot of an ultralight aircraft. It had crashed on a dark, November night, as the pilot made a drug smuggling run across the border.

Smuggling over America's southern border is big business--a $25 billion-a-year-plus industry. With those stakes, the cartels have plenty of money and incentive to find ways to beat border security. This one involved the use an ultralight, a motorized glider.

Ultralights are perfectly legal. Affordable too. Just a few thousand dollars for a basic rig. Anyone can buy, sell, or trade them on the Internet. A typical ultralight weighs less than 254 lbs, carries about five gallons of gas and a single occupant, and tops out at 63 miles an hour. No license is required.

The fact that they are small and quiet makes them difficult to spot on radar. They can hop over U.S. security at the border with little effort.

Ultralights are not ideal for smuggling. They are not meant to be flown at night. They are not for carrying cargo either. Both factors likely contributed to the San Luis smuggler's demise.

But they do demonstrate the Department of Homeland Security faces a determined and resourceful enemy on the Southern border--one that will try anything to make a buck or a peso.

And the bad guys won't stop with ultralights. Since 2006, drug-smuggling submarines--home-made underwater craft laden with cocaine--have increasingly made their way into U.S. waters. Motivated enemies like this won't be stopped with half-hearted efforts.

Last week President Barack Obama went to Mexico, and Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano announced new initiatives--both intending to send the message that they take border security seriously. Here is the test to determine if their actions live up to their rhetoric.

The administration can't fight cartels and ignore illegal immigration. People smuggling is part of the problem, not a separate issue. The Border Patrol has to fight both. The more people crossing unlawfully, the more difficult it will be for the patrol to focus on organized transnational threats.

Legalization will only make matters worse. Granting asylum to people here illegally would only encourage more illegal border crossing. It always has in the past, because people assume that--if they enter illegally, they'll eventually be "amnestied" too. Likewise, failure to enforce workplace and immigration laws only encourages more to ignore the law.

The fight has to go beyond the border. Frankly, just adding inspections on people heading south is not going to work. Homeland Security drug searches will inconvenience everyone, but the cartels won't mind. They can afford to lose some of their loads--and their mules--as the price of doing business. And if the searches get really intense, they'll simply seek alternative routes and means--like ultralights.

On the U.S. side there has to be a robust, integrated response of federal, state, and local law enforcement. It will take a coordinated effort--meshing with is going on in California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico--to target and break up the cartel and transnational gang networks.

At the local level, we need more community policing that targets criminal elements in the border community. That means more support and assistance for border county sheriff departments.

That's the test. We'll see in the month ahead how Homeland Security measures up.

James Jay Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology and Winning World War II.

First Appeared in the Washington Examiner