Two plead guilty in border drug smuggling by drone

When 28 pounds of heroin made it across the U.S.-Mexico border near Calexico in April, it didn't come by the usual methods of car, truck or tunnel. It came by drone, federal authorities said Wednesday, making it the first cross-border seizure by U.S. law enforcement involving the new smuggle-by-air tactic.

Two men pleaded guilty Tuesday to retrieving the drugs near California Highway 98 in Imperial County, a pickup that was captured on Border Patrol cameras on April 28, according to court records.

"With border security tight, drug traffickers have thought of every conceivable method to move their drugs over, under and through the border," U.S. Atty. Laura Duffy said in a statement. "We have found their tunnels, their Cessnas, their Jet Skis, their pangas, and now we have found their drones."

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U.S. law enforcement officials call the use of drug-laden drones from Mexico an emerging threat, yet at the same time have questioned how profitable the practice can be because drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are limited in how much they can carry.

Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego, said authorities have been prepared for cross-border drones since at least last year when they received a tip that smuggling operators might be considering the tactic.

Thus far, the activity appears to be mostly test runs, authorities said.

Drones as a drug-smuggling tool made news in January when one hauling meth crashed in the parking lot of a Tijuana shopping center, two miles from the U.S. border. It was loaded with about seven pounds of drugs and was likely being ferried from neighborhood to neighborhood, Mexican law enforcement said.

Months later, Border Patrol camera operators spotted a person carrying a large object in a field near Calexico who waved down a vehicle, according to the complaint. The large item was thrown in the trunk and the person climbed into the passenger seat.

Agents stopped the vehicle nearby and found a duffel bag full of drugs in the trunk that turned out to be heroin.

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The driver, Jonathan Elias, 18, told agents in an interview that he'd known the passenger, Brayan Valle, for about a month, according to the complaint. He said Valle had called asking him to pick him and the drugs up for $100. Valle, 19, also admitted picking up the drugs, as well as a drone controller, according to his plea agreement.

Each pleaded guilty Tuesday in El Centro federal court to one count of possession of drugs with intent to distribute. They are set to be sentenced in San Diego on Oct. 20. Their plea agreements don't give further details about the drone or who operated it.

Small drones, which have become easily accessible and affordable to the general public, can fly up to an hour and as far as five miles, and some can be navigated by preset GPS coordinates. Mexican media have reported that drug cartels are commissioning engineers for custom-made drones.

kristina.davis@utsandiego.com

Kristina Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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