Four men have been arrested in connection with a drug-smuggling scheme in which an ultralight aircraft allegedly dropped nearly 200 pounds of methamphetamine near the Salton Sea, federal authorities announced Monday.
Investigators found the drugs, which were packaged in 26 Tupperware containers, after two of the men fled in a dune buggy and crashed into the Coachella Canal, court documents show.
Though there have been other cases of drug smuggling by aircraft closer to the border, federal prosecutors said this is the first time such arrests have been made in California’s Central District, which includes Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
“This is the first time for our office, to our knowledge, that there’s been a prosecution in the Central District of California for something involving an ultralight or plane coming in and dropping narcotics within our district,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Benjamin J. Weir, who is prosecuting the case.
The aircraft illegally crossed into the United States from Mexico near the Calexico East Port of Entry late Thursday, according to an affidavit in support of a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court. Agents from the U.S. Border Patrol and the Air and Marine Operations Center in Riverside tracked the ultralight using radar and a thermal night-vision scope, the affidavit states.
The surveillance indicated that the aircraft spiraled downward in the area of the Coachella Canal near North Shore before turning south back toward Mexico. The pattern of movement led law enforcement to believe that a load of cargo had been dropped on the ground.
About 11:45 p.m., California Highway Patrol aircraft officers saw two off-road vehicles using spotlights on the ground near the suspected drop site before departing south toward Coachella Canal road.
A Border Patrol agent who was in the area activated his lights and siren in an attempt to intercept the vehicles, a Polaris RZR 1000 and a 2019 Can-Am. The Polaris stopped, and authorities arrested its occupants, identified by authorities as Juan Carlos Iturriaga-Centeno, 33, and his brother, Leonardo Iturriaga-Centeno, 28.
The Can-Am sped away and crashed into the Coachella Canal. Border Patrol agents arriving at the scene saw two men trying to swim away. The officers pulled the men out of the water and took them into custody. They were identified as Victor Bugarin-Perez, 28, and Juan Favela-Paredez, 25.
Agents also saw a package floating in the canal near the crashed buggy, and more fell out when they retrieved the vehicle from the water, court documents show. In total, 26 Tupperware packages containing almost 185 pounds of methamphetamine were recovered from the buggy and the canal, authorities said. Investigators also found inside the Polaris two GPS tracking devices, which they believe were attached to the drugs dropped from the aircraft.
All four men were charged with one count each of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, which carries a maximum possible penalty of life in prison. Each made an initial court appearance Monday.
Bugarin-Perez, of Mecca, was released on $100,000 bond, and Leonardo Itturiaga-Centeno, of North Shore, was released on $40,000 bond. They are scheduled for preliminary hearings on Jan. 6.
Favela-Paredez and Juan Carlos Iturriaga-Centeno are Mexican nationals in the U.S. illegally, authorities said. They were detained as flight risks, officials said. Both are due in court for preliminary hearings Dec. 30.