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A radar gap created to avoid interference with telescopes at the Kitt Peak observatory in southern Arizona reportedly helps drug smugglers avert detection in their flights across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Arizona Republic on Friday quoted a former smuggler as saying the gap west of Kitt Peak, known as Gringo Pass, has been used for years to fly in cocaine from Mexico.By flying low and hiding behind the Baboquivari Mountains, which extend north from the Mexican border to Kitt Peak, smuggler pilots claim they are able to take advantage of the blanked-out radar to gain extra protection against an aerostat radar blimp at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, the Republic said.

The pilots told the newspaper that by the time they get past Kitt Peak and land at small dirt strips in southern Arizona, it's too late for U.S. Customs aircraft to chase them.

The Mexican border is 32 miles south of Kitt Peak.

Customs officials and astronomers at Kitt Peak reached an agreement in September 1987 that calls for operators to turn the radar off when the aerostat sweeps the observatory because the radar occasionally "bleeds" over into the observatory's instruments.

When operators are tracking a suspected drug smuggler, however, the agreement allows for Customs officials to stop blocking out the radar.

Sources told the Republic that radar blanking for Kitt Peak has never been suspended in the four years the blimp has been in operation at Fort Huachuca.

A former smuggler not identified by the Republic said he has flown Gringo Pass 100 times in the past 20 years and the radar blanking "is common knowledge among smugglers."

"I don't consider the aerostat to be much of a factor in stopping me," the former smuggler was quoted as saying.

To prove a point, the former smuggler flew a Republic reporter from Mexico through Gringo Pass and up to Kitt Peak two weeks ago, the newspaper said.

The aircraft flew at about 200 feet above the desert, using the Baboquivari Mountains for additional protection against any radar surveillance on an 18-minute flight from the Mexican border to a strip near Avra Valley.