Sonora, the Mexican state bordering Arizona, is the Chicago O’Hare of aerial drug smuggling, the Arizona Republic reports. Tons of marijuana and cocaine arrive at dirt airstrips every month on their way to the U.S. In one recent episode, a Cessna dove toward the ground, landed, the doors popped open, and two smugglers bolted for the fields. By the time Mexican soldiers arrived minutes later, it was too late. The men were gone. The plane sat in the gathering dark, smelling of freshly cut marijuana. The a cat-and-mouse game is played over and over again as Mexican authorities chase airborne drug runners high over the deserts and mountains south of Arizona. The planes don’t cross the border, but they bring drugs to staging areas where smugglers load them into cars, trucks, backpacks or saddlebags for the final trek into the U.S. It’s the FedEx of the underworld, an air-to-ground smuggling system that has survived despite increased security and rising drug seizures along the border.
In 2004, 697,000 pounds of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and ecstasy were confiscated by U.S. authorities along the Arizona-Mexico border, up from 395,000 pounds in 1999. Despite those seizures, the availability of every drug except heroin and ecstasy has increased in Southwestern cities, says the U.S. Justice Department’s annual survey of law enforcement agencies. Drug-plane pilots fly in plain sight of U.S. radar. They commandeer village airports and country roads. They pay bribes to keep the outmanned, outgunned local cops from bothering them. They serve as executive transport for hit men and kingpins. For authorities on both sides of the border, the planes are symbols of the impunity drug traffickers enjoy.