Stopping drug smugglers on the ground is one thing. You can build a fence, send more Border Patrol agents and put up more cameras. But it’s a whole other thing to stop Mexico’s cartels from using tiny planes that are nearly impossible to catch.
That’s why the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is spending $100 million on new sensors that can detect ultralight aircraft. The giant contract — awarded to New York defense company SRCTec earlier this month — comes as the cartels have been using more of the planes to elude Border Patrol agents. The cartels also seem to have become pretty good at it. The Air Force has chased them with jets, and the Border Patrol has pursued them with Black Hawk helicopters.
Closer to gliders than complete planes; ultralight planes are small, cheap and their engines are relatively quiet. They move slowly, but are flown low to blend in with the southwest border’s rugged and hilly terrain, which the smugglers use to hide from radar. The last available data on ultralight incursions is from 2011, when the CBP detected 223 flights, double from two years prior. It stands to reason the real number is much higher, owing to the diminutive aircraft’s sneakiness.