2 plead guilty to smuggling heroin from Mexico by drone

EL CENTRO, Calif. (AP) — Two California men pleaded guilty to using drones to smuggle nearly 30 pounds of heroin from Mexico to the United States, authorities said Wednesday.

It was the first drug seizure involving a drone along California’s border with Mexico, said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. She was unaware of any other drone-related seizure on the 1,954-mile divide between the two countries.

Jonathan Elias, 18, and Brayan Valle, 19, admitted in federal court Tuesday that they drove to a field in Calexico, California, in April to pick up a bag with 28.6 pounds of heroin that was sent across the border by drone.

Elias took over control of the drone from an operator in Mexico after the aircraft crossed the border, Mack said. In a plea agreement, Valle acknowledged placing the drugs in the trunk.

“With border security tight, drug traffickers have thought of every conceivable method to move their drugs over, under and through the border,” said Laura Duffy, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California. “We have found their tunnels, their Cessnas, their jet skis, their pangas, and now we have found their drones.”

The discovery comes about four years after authorities began discovering ultralight aircraft making lightning-quick runs across the border in California’sImperial Valley to drop bundles of marijuana, a tactic that has since become more common on other stretches of border. Like ultralights, drones are limited by the weight they can carry. But authorities are paying closer attention as they become more popular with consumers.

“It’s more in an experimental stage and doesn’t appear to be very successful or lucrative,” Mack said.

The defendants, both from El Centro, each face maximum sentences of 20 years in prison when they are sentenced Oct. 20 for possession of heroin with intent to distribute.

In January, Mexican authorities said a drone carrying more than six pounds of methamphetamine crashed in a supermarket parking lot in Tijuana, near the nation’s busiest border crossing with San Diego.