A clandestine landing strip found in Baja California in 2010

Mexican officials report that the country has seized over 500 illegal planes and destroyed nearly 4,000 illegal airstrips since 2006, as part of an effort to combat aerial drug trafficking that has forced traffickers to use alternative methods.

According to sources in Mexico's Defense Ministry (Sedena) consulted by Milenio, the majority of the 3,887 clandestine airstrips destroyed between December 2006 and November 2012 were built for light airplanes. During the same period, Mexico's Air Force and Army confiscated 539 aircraft.

The number of airstrips destroyed has decreased over the course of the Calderon administration, falling from a high of 880 in 2007 to 312 so far this year.

Sedena officials also said that increased pressure on aerial drug trafficking has forced smugglers to use more creative methods, like dropping cocaine shipments fitted with parachutes in the sea. Authorities have discovered these packages, which are fitted with bags of salt so that they remain submerged until the salt dissolves and traffickers can pick them up, off the coast of several coastal states.

InSight Crime Analysis

Clandestine airstrips are common in Central America, where cocaine traffickers take advantage of weak state presence in rural areas to land drug flights. According to the US State Department, nearly 80 percent of cocaine flights from South America pass through Honduras.

In contrast, in Mexico drugs are mostly transported either overland or by sea. While some traffickers do use aircraft in the country, the steady decrease in the number of airstrips discovered appears to support claims that smugglers have moved away from large scale aerial trafficking.

However, there is evidence that drug smugglers in the country have increasingly turned to ultralight aircraft to move smaller amounts of product northward. These inexpensive, motorized hang gliders are extremely difficult to detect because they are quiet and fly low enough to evade radar. In May 2011, the US Senate reported that the number of cases involving ultralight planes crossing the border had almost doubled in the last fiscal year.