The buzz of a motor overhead at nearly 11:30 p.m. was the tip-off.
A remote-controlled drone flew over the border fence from Mexico, heading for San Ysidro, while a Border Patrol agent listened and watched. He radioed ahead to other agents to be on the lookout for the small aircraft.
Ten minutes later, federal authorities had busted what they say is their first confirmed case of drug smuggling by drone in San Diego County.
Late on the night of Aug. 8, agents arrested a man carrying a bag full of methamphetamine — more than 13 pounds valued at an estimated $46,000. They found the drone stashed under a bush near Servando Avenue and Valentino Street, authorities said Friday.
"This is a new method we're seeing," Border Patrol supervising agent Mark Endicott said.
"We've had some success on the ground when it comes to [catching] smugglers of humans and controlled substances. So transnational organizations are looking for other ways to get their product into the country."
After his arrest in San Ysidro last week, Jose Edwin Rivera, 25, told investigators he had smuggled drugs by drone into the U.S. from Mexico five or six times since March, according to a criminal complaint filed in San Diego federal court on Aug. 9. He said he usually turned the drugs over to a man at a San Ysidro gas station, pocketing $1,000 on delivery.
The complaint said Rivera told a Border Patrol agent and a Homeland Security agent that he would normally communicate with contacts in Mexico for instructions after retrieving the drone and drugs. He said he expected to do so on Aug. 8, but was interrupted by his arrest.
Rivera remains in jail on a charge of importing a controlled substance. He has pleaded not guilty.
While the drone smuggling arrest is a first in San Diego County, a 2015 case in Imperial County was the first in the Southwest region involving an unmanned aerial vehicle. Two men pleaded guilty to flying 30 pounds of marijuana over the border to Calexico.
Repard writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.