Border Patrol agents tracked an ultralight aircraft as it crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and made it 30 miles into the country early Tuesday morning — and when they got to the landing spot, they found two Chinese men who had been smuggled in by the aircraft.
The ultralight had escaped, lifting back off and returning to Mexico, but agents say they did manage to nab a Mexican man waiting in a vehicle near the landing zone in southern California, apparently ready to pick up the Chinese men and deliver them to their destination.
Experts said they had seen ultralights, small aircraft powered by lawn mower-sized engines, used to drop loads of drugs in the U.S. But they were surprised to see them being used to ferry illegal immigrants.
“It’s disturbing,” said Chris Harris, who retired this year after a two-decade career as a Border Patrol agent in San Diego and who suggested it could be a way for cartels to get dangerous people across the border. “If you want to get some operatives in this country very quickly, that’s a way.”
Gloria I. Chavez, chief patrol agent in the El Centro sector of the Border Patrol, agreed that ultralights pose a threat to “national security.”
“These aircraft are able to carry small payloads of dangerous cargo or dangerous people,” she said.
Tuesday’s incident was the second ultralight incursion reported this week near Calexico. Two days earlier, Border Patrol agents tracked an ultralight that crossed the border and descended north of the town, then turned around and flew back toward Mexico.
When agents reached the location they say they found 60 duct-taped bundles with nearly 130 pounds of methamphetamine, with an estimated value of more than $1.4 million.
In Arizona, meanwhile, Border Patrol agents this week said they uncovered a new cross-border tunnel being dug between Nogales on the Mexican side and Nogales on the U.S. side.
The tunnel, which had not been completed, began just a few feet into Mexico and ran 44 feet into the U.S.
Cartels are quick to adapt to U.S. authorities’ efforts, using everything from night-vision goggles to spotters placed on strategic hilltops inside the U.S. to direct smuggling operations. They also use cell phones to guide migrants to pickup locations and use smartphone apps that can hide identities to recruit drivers.
Over the last few years, agents and local law enforcement agencies along the southwest border have spotted drones being used to deliver drugs, and in some cases, catapults or T-shirt cannons used to fire loads over the border fence.
Authorities say they don’t have a good ability to detect ultralights or drones, often relying on luck to spot them. And there’s no set policy for trying to interdict an ultralight other than to follow it and hope to catch it on the ground.
Suggestions of shooting them down have been met with resistance by government officials, who say the chances of misidentification or of something going wrong are too high.
A House immigration bill this year called for better detection capabilities for ultralights as part of a broader deal on border security and illegal immigrant “Dreamers.” That legislation was defeated on the floor.
Authorities recorded 534 suspected ultralight incursions from Mexico from 2011 through 2016, mostly to locations in the Arizona desert, the Government Accountability Office said in a 2017 report.
A Senate committee report in 2015 said cartels were even using juveniles to fly the ultralights because they weighed less, leaving the aircraft free to carry bigger loads. Cartels also figured U.S. officials were less likely to prosecute juveniles for smuggling.
The 2017 GAO report had downplayed the idea of ultralights being used to smuggle people, making this week’s incident all the more stunning.
The two Chinese men smuggled across were ages 23 and 30. They made their own way from China to Tijuana, then used a social media app to hook up with a smuggler, said David Kim, assistant chief patrol agent for the El Centro sector.
He said they reported being in the air for as long as two hours before they were dropped off near Calipatria, a community about 30 miles north of the border.
Chief Kim said the men gave inconsistent statements about how much they paid, but a Washington Times analysis of court documents shows the average rate for a Chinese national to be smuggled into the U.S. through a port of entry this year is nearly $31,000. A Chinese man smuggled in late last week paid $40,000, while some pay as much as $70,000 apiece.
Chief Kim said those high prices likely limit the universe of people able to afford being airlifted in.
“Smuggling humans via ULA has not been something that we’ve seen as a common occurrence,” he said. “Obviously it is cost prohibitive for many of those seeking to illegally enter the U.S. and has almost exclusively been used for narcotics smuggling.”
He recalled one other instance within the last year when a Chinese national was also brought in by an ultralight. In that case, the migrant was also in possession of narcotics, likely boosting the value of the smuggling event to the cartels.
In another case in 2016, border authorities spotted a suspicious helicopter and reported it local police, who used their own aircraft to track it to the Chino Municipal Airport, where four men got out and jumped into a waiting sport utility vehicle.
Police stopped the SUV and held the men for Border Patrol agents, who found them to be in the country illegally. They said they had snuck across the border, then paid to be flown north, skipping over the highway checkpoints that snare many illegal immigrants.
Chief Kim did not name either of the Chinese migrants nor the Mexican man arrested as the vehicle driver in Tuesday’s incident.
He did say the 36-year-old Mexican had a recently issued valid border crossing card, so he was not in the U.S. illegally. He is being prosecuted for human smuggling, Chief Kim said.
The ultralight airlifts come as President Trump is battling Congress for more money for border fencing, saying it would stop dangerous people and drugs.
Critics have said illegal contraband would go over or under a wall.
Mr. Harris, the retired Border Patrol agent, said that may be true in some limited cases, but he said hundreds of thousands of people can’t squeeze through the tunnels or fly ultralights over.