A Mexican national was sentenced Monday in Los Angeles to 63 months in federal prison for conspiring to distribute nearly 120 pounds of methamphetamine that was dropped in the desert by an airplane that had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.
Juan Carlos Iturriaga-Centeno, 34, a one-time resident of Mecca in Riverside County, pleaded guilty in April to one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.
In December 2019, Iturriaga-Centeno and his co-conspirators drove off-road utility vehicles into the desert near North Shore, a Riverside County community located near the Salton Sea. There, they waited for an ultralight plane, which had crossed the United States-Mexico border, to drop the drug packages, which were attached to a parachute.
The packages had GPS tracking devices attached, and Iturriaga-Centeno and the co-conspirators used a cell phone to locate the GPS trackers and retrieve the 116.4 pounds of meth, according to documents filed in Los Angeles federal court.
Border Patrol and the Air and Marine Operations Center in Riverside tracked the ultralight plane as it crossed the international border near Calexico. After radar surveillance indicated that the aircraft descended and then headed back to Mexico, a California Highway Patrol aircraft saw two vehicles that left the area and were intercepted by a marked Border Patrol vehicle.
A Polaris off-road vehicle occupied by Iturriaga-Centeno and his brother, Leonardo Iturriago-Centeno, 30, stopped, but a Can-Am vehicle with two other men sped away and was driven into the Coachella Canal. The Border Patrol rescued Victor Efren Bugarin-Perez, 30, of Mecca, and Juan Favela-Paredez, a 26-year-old Mexican national, when they were unable to exit the canal.
Favela-Paredez and Leonardo Iturriaga-Centeno — who each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine — were each sentenced to 57 months in federal prison. Bugarin-Perez, the lead defendant, fled after being freed on bond, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
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