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Special U.S. military unit hunts Mexico border drug flights

By Curt Prendergast

DOUGLAS, Ariz (Reuters) - A highly specialized U.S. military task force is using battlefield technology to help federal police hunt elusive drug traffickers slipping over the Mexico border in hard-to-detect ultralight aircraft, officials said on Thursday.

Joint Task Force North, a cadre of highly specialized Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, is using the military's cutting edge radar and optical technologies to help the U.S. Border Patrol nab the drug flights in southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Wily traffickers attach bundles of up to a few hundred pounds of marijuana to the small, lightweight aircraft, which are difficult to spot and often fly in areas not covered by the Federal Aviation Administration, officials said.

"We take great pride in being able to say, 'We own the night,'" task force spokesman Armando Carrasco told a news conference near Douglas, a remote ranching town on the Mexico border in Arizona, where the flights are a headache for law enforcement.

"We can deploy radars to where there's no FAA coverage ... Our purpose is to identify all aircraft crossing the border illegally. If it flies, we can identify it," he added.

U.S. authorities have recorded hundreds of ultralight incursions along the porous, nearly 2,000 mile border with Mexico in recent years. The smugglers often dump the drugs and head back south to Mexico without landing. At least two have crashed.

In January, President Barack Obama signed a law sponsored by former Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords levying new penalties on people who use the aircraft to smuggle drugs over the U.S. border.

Operation Nimbus II involves around 500 highly specialized personnel. They will use the military's Sentinel battlefield radar system, and the Avenger Air Defense System, which uses infrared heat-sensing technology to help detect intruders.

The systems are able to track unscheduled incursions both during the day and at night in remote mountain and desert terrain in southern Arizona and western New Mexico, among the areas most frequently probed by the clandestine drug flights.

The partnership is of mutual benefit to both the Border Patrol and the military task force, officials said. "We get additional eyes and they get training," said Steven Passement, a spokesman for Border Patrol's Tucson sector

"It's good training in a real-world environment," said Sergeant Mark Stark, who is trained on the Sentinel system.

The task force, which includes engineers, map makers, radar and intelligence specialists, currently aids the Border Patrol on the northern border with Canada, where it has used battlefield radar systems to target marijuana smugglers.

However, 70 percent of the more than 6,000 missions conducted by the task force since its creation in 1989 have been on the border with Mexico, Carrasco said.

Last year the group, which operates in an area between homeland security and defense known as "the seam," conducted 80 missions in support of federal police, with more than 50 of them on the southern border, he said.

These included using ground-penetrating radar systems to hunt for drug tunnels bored under the border to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, and road construction in various cities along the border, Carrasco said.

Both the Obama administration and the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon have in recent years stepped up cooperation to curb the smuggling of drugs and migrants north over the U.S. border and of cash and guns south to Mexico, where about 50,000 people have been killed in drug violence in the past five years.

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Johnston)

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