EL CENTRO, CALIF. (13 On Your Side) - Mexico. It's our neighbor country but also a breeding ground for drug smuggling. As border patrol agents tighten up security - drug cartels invent new ways to get around them.
Drug smugglers may be criminals - but they're not clueless. As border patrol agents continue beefing up boundary lines on ground - smugglers are now using a route that's harder to detect - the sky.
Living in a border town - it's not out of the ordinary to hear about drug smuggling on a regular basis.
For border patrol agents - it's a crime that comes with the territory. They not only hear about it, they see it almost every day. Drug smugglers trying to sneak hundreds of pounds of drugs - from marijuana and heroin to meth -- into the country by strapping them onto their body or hiding them in vehicle compartments - such as gas tanks or in tires.
But a new technique is soaring in El Centro. "Ultra light airplanes. Something light, small and for those characteristics, it's being used for smuggling." According to border patrol union president Lombardo Amaya, agents out on the field are reporting a dramatic increase of the ULAs - ultra light aircraft.
"We have at least four incursions per day that we're recording." Amaya says the popularity of ultra light aircrafts are increasing because they're cheap and easy to build - and you don't need to be a certified pilot.
"They are made from different kinds of material. Metal, sometimes plastic tubes. different materials. you can find online offers that you can find ULAs for $40."
These motorized hang gliders can carry big loads of drugs - up to two to three hundred pounds.
"The majority of the contraband is marijuana. We've found meth." And they fly low, and many times under the radar - up to 70 miles into the U.S.
"We recorded in our database - like it's done deal that we found it. It's from here - like three from border with Mexico, right here in Calexico - all the way to Mecca."
These pictures show another one of the most recent ULAs found in the Imperial Valley last year. The bundles contained marijuana weighing almost 190 pounds - with an estimated value of more than $150,000. 13 pounds were meth bundles valuing at more than $400,000. No arrests were made.
A video by National Geographic shows how ULA smuggling works. A single person pilots the aircraft undetected during dark hours of the night, drops the load of illegal drugs in a designated spot, and usually returns to Mexico.
"I can tell you, from October of last year to the present, probably we're talking about 4 or 5 that we found on the ground because they broke down or they just abandoned them," says Amaya, "most of the time they leave the ULA abandoned if they crash, they have a malfunction or they run out of gas."
Still, finding a ULA is one thing, catching the pilot is another. "The most important thing - we need to identify the individuals. I believe as a country we have the technology to do it but we need to pay more attention to it."
In an effort to stop this trend President Obama signed "The Ultra light Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2012."
Under the act, anyone caught smuggling via ULA can face up to 20 years in prison and pay a $250,000 fine. So why is this trend now increasing in California's border?
"They were getting a lot of attention in the Tucson area so they had to move over to this area. Probably the organization was moving because of that," says Amaya, "I think they found the right terrain within the Mexicali area and within the Coachella, Imperial Valley area."
But according to Amaya - agents are powerless to stop the aircrafts from entering the state.
"We have equipment like night vision devices, radars - small radars - we also have a place our border patrol agents in special units to conduct surveillance to develop Intel to try to pinpoint the areas or trends they are using but I think these are baby steps."
In order to help fight this trend of ULAs, the El Centro Border Patrol sector encourages everyone to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity.
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