Four Charged with Smuggling Drugs via Experimental Craft Near Salton Sea

Four men accused of conspiring in an operation that involved using an ultralight aircraft to smuggle nearly 200 pounds of methamphetamine into Riverside County from Mexico are facing federal drug trafficking charges, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Monday.

Victor Bugarin Perez, 28, of Mecca, Mexican nationals Juan Favela Paredez, 25, and Juan Carlos Iturriaga Centeno, 33, and Centano’s brother, Leonardo Iturriaga Centeno, 28, of North Shore, were each charged over the weekend with possession and intent to distribute meth.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Juan Centeno and Paredez entered the country illegally.

They’re all being held without bail at a federal detention facility in San Bernardino County and are expected to make appearances at U.S. District Court in Riverside this week.

Prosecutors allege that in the predawn hours Friday, an ultralight — a low-powered experimental plane, resembling a glider, with an open-air cockpit — flew into the U.S. from Calexico, Mexico, at low altitude but was detected by the U.S. Customs & Border Protection’s Air & Marine Operations Center at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside.

Radar intercept personnel tracked the ultralight as it flew over the Salton Sea and landed in the Riverside County community of North Shore. A California Highway Patrol air crew and Border Patrol agents were directed to the area as the ultralight quickly departed and headed back south into Mexico, prosecutors said.

The CHP pilot spotted two vehicles leaving the point where the ultralight set down and directed Border Patrol agents to the location, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Federal officers quickly stopped and apprehended the Centeno brothers, who were in an off-road vehicle, prosecutors said. However, another off- road dune buggy, carrying Paredez and Perez, was driven into the Coachella Canal in an alleged attempt to evade the agents.

The defendants became stuck in the canal and were safely retrieved by the agents, according to federal prosecutors.

“After the men were taken into custody, authorities recovered from the canal 26 Tupperware containers that contained a total of 184.5 pounds of meth,” according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office statement.

Prosecutors said GPS devices were also seized and were likely used to establish the ultralight’s drop zone.

If convicted, each defendant could face life in prison with the possibility of parole.

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