Press Releases

Amendment Targets Drug Smugglers Using Ultralight Aircraft

Increases criminal penalties for drug smuggling with radar-evading, single-seat aircraft; companion bill passed House of Representatives with bipartisan support

Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) co-sponsored a bipartisan amendment to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act to help improve border security by cracking down on smugglers who use ultralight aircraft to bring drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. The amendment introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), is cosponsored by Sens. Feinstein, Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). It is identical to legislation Sen. Udall introduced earlier this year.

The same bill passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives last Congress after being introduced by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who has long fought for increased security along the southwest border.

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 United States and return to Mexico without ever landing in this country.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, 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. 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 amendment assures that whether drug smuggling is done via airplane or ultralight vehicles, the criminal penalties should be the same,” continued Feinstein.

“This amendment would give law enforcement a stronger enforcement tool to punish drug traffickers and keep our borders secure. Without equal penalties for all types of transportation smuggling our law enforcement officials are essentially fighting with one hand tied behind their backs,” said Udall, a member of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

“Due to a loophole in current law, drug smugglers who use ultralights receive a lesser penalty than those who use airplanes or cars. This amendment will provide law enforcement the tools it needs to prosecute drug smugglers to the fullest extent of the law. I am pleased to join my colleagues in this bipartisan effort to crack down on these illegal activities,” said Heller.

“Congresswoman Giffords has led the fight to crack down on drug smugglers who use ultralight aircraft to traffic illegal drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Pia Carusone, Giffords’ chief of staff. “We appreciate Senators Udall and Heller carrying on her determination to stop this escalating threat.”

“Ultralight aircraft are increasingly being used to smuggle drugs into our country. This amendment ensures that the penalties for those caught using this form of trafficking are as stiff as those for smugglers bringing drugs into the country by plane,” Bingaman said.

“We must keep our borders safe for our families and communities,” Gillibrand said. “It is important to close this loophole to help our Border Patrol prosecute those that illegally smuggle narcotics into the United States via ultralight aircraft.”

This amendment 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

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.