Trial set for pair accused of smuggling drugs via experimental aircraft

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RIVERSIDE (CNS) – A Feb. 11 trial date is tentatively set for two of four men accused of conspiring in an operation that involved using an ultralight aircraft to smuggle methamphetamine into Riverside County from Mexico.

Juan Carlos Iturriaga Centeno, 33, and Juan Favela Paredez, 25, both Mexican nationals, were indicted last month on conspiracy to distribute meth and possession of meth for sale.

Victor Bugarin Perez, 28, of Mecca and Leonardo Iturriaga Centeno, 28, of North Shore — Juan Centeno’s brother — were also indicted. They’re slated to be arraigned at U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Jan. 14.

All are in federal custody except for Perez, who is free on a $40,000 bond, court records show.

Juan Centeno and Paredez entered the country illegally, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. During a hearing Thursday in Los Angeles federal court, U.S. District Judge Dale Fisher scheduled trial proceedings for the two men, though it was noted that the date is not firm.

Prosecutors allege that in the predawn hours of Dec. 12, an ultralight — a low-powered experimental plane resembling a glider with an open-air cockpit — flew into the U.S. from Calexico, Mexico, at very 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 followed the Coachella Canal to North Shore, according to the indictment.

A California Highway Patrol air crew and Border Patrol agents were directed to the area as the ultralight made a sweeping turn, and the operator released the contraband over a designated spot being monitored by the four defendants, prosecutors said.

After the release, the ultralight winged south and presumably returned to its point of origin, according to court papers.

The indictment alleges that the defendants were monitoring the drop zone, which had been predetermined using GPS tracking devices to coordinate the delivery.

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

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

The defendants became stuck and were safely retrieved by the agents, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

“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 an agency statement.

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