The video is grainy and shaky in night vision green and black, but it captures a brazen smuggling technique used by Mexican drug cartels to get bales of marijuana across the border undetected by authorities.
"This is remarkable,"said former DEA agent Jim Molesa, who is now the chief deputy in the Navajo County Sheriff's Office.
CBS 5 Investigates showed the video to Molesa. It took three years of repeated requests to obtain the video from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Customs and Border Protection agents captured the images on camera three years ago, while patrolling the border near Nogales.
The video shows an ultralight aircraft flying low across the border to avoid detection from radar. The aircraft drops down to just above the tree line and drops what appears to be two bales of marijuana to the ground. Several people on the collect the bales and drag them to a waiting vehicle. That vehicle then drives away.
It is unclear whether the video led to any arrests. ICE agents would not comment about it. But during the three years it took to obtain the video, the agency repeatedly told CBS 5 Investigates that the investigation was ongoing.
Using ultralights to carry drugs across the border is a technique that has been used for years. But actually capturing an operation on video, as it happens, is something that has rarely, if ever been done before.
Despite the brazenness of the operation, ICE officials say they do not see many ultralight smuggling efforts along the Arizona and Mexico border these days. One reason may be the economics involved in smuggling.
"They're a business. They have a profit margin they're concerned about. An ultralight only can carry a certain amount," said Molesa.
But Molesa said it's possible that airborne smuggling operations will resume in force, to bring across the types of illegal drugs that do not require such a high volume to make money. Cocaine, meth and heroin are three examples.
A report released by the California Attorney General's Office in March indicated that ultralights will continue to be a factor in smuggling operations, but as drone technology improves, unmanned aerial vehicles may be the next adaptation the drug cartels pursue.
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