They thought it was thunder.
The night of September 7, Maya and Bill Donnelly woke up to a loud, crashing sound at their Arizona home in the border town of Nogales. Believing the noise to be the remnant of a lingering rainstorm, they went back to sleep, authorities said.
Imagine their shock later that morning, when they discovered a large plastic package in the destroyed remains of their German shepherd’s doghouse.
It was a 23-pound parcel that police say contained about $10,000 worth of marijuana, and it had smashed a hole through the plywood roof of the family’s home carport, which is about 1,000 feet from the U.S.-Mexico border, officials said.
Officials speculate that the illegal drugs dropped from a smuggler’s aircraft that had taken off from Mexico, officials said.
“The package likely fell out of the sky,” Nogales Police Department spokesman Det. Robert Fierros told ABC News. “We have seen ultralight [plane] activity in our town before but never seen a package that is assumed to be from an ultralight fall so close to the border.”
They fly low and slow over the border, their wings painted black and motors humming faintly under moonlit skies. The pilots, some armed in the open cockpits, steer the horizontal control bar with one hand and pull a latch with the other, releasing 250-pound payloads that land with a thud, leaving only craters as evidence of another successful smuggling run.
Mexican organized crime groups, increasingly stymied by stepped-up enforcement on land, have dug tunnels and captained boats to get drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. But they have also taken to the skies, using ultralight aircraft that resemble motorized hang gliders to drop marijuana bundles in agricultural fields and desert scrub across the Southwest border.
What began with a few flights in Arizona in 2008, is now common from Texas to California’s Imperial Valley and in San Diego, where at least two ultralights suspected of carrying drugs have been detected flying over Interstate 8, according to U.S. border authorities.
Fierros explained that such drug drops in his area usually occur in the desert and on the outskirts of Nogales and the neighboring town of Rio Rico.
“Thankfully, nobody was hurt,” he said. “Had this bundle actually fallen on someone or a pet there would have been some injuries. In this case, we were fortunate enough not to have to deal with that.”