A Mexican national was sentenced this week to five years and three months in federal prison for conspiring to distribute nearly 120 pounds of methamphetamine, according to officials.

The methamphetamine had been 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, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Dale S. Fischer. Iturriaga-Centeno pleaded guilty on April 30 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 airplane, which had crossed the United States-Mexico border, to drop packages of methamphetamine, which were attached to a parachute.

The methamphetamine had GPS tracking devices attached to it and Iturriaga-Centeno and the co-conspirators used a cell phone to locate the GPS trackers and retrieve the package of methamphetamine. The packages contained 116.4 pounds (52.8 kilograms) of methamphetamine, according to court documents.

Border Patrol and the Air and Marine Operations Center in Riverside tracked the ultralight airplane as it crossed the international border near Calexico, according to court documents.

After radar surveillance indicated that the aircraft descended and then headed back to Mexico, a California Highway Patrol aircraft saw two vehicles.

The two vehicles 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.

The Can-Am vehicle was driven into the Coachella Canal, and the Border Patrol rescued Victor Efren Bugarin-Perez, 30, of Mecca, and Juan Favela-Paredez, 26, a Mexican national, when they were unable to exit the canal.

          Favela-Paredez and Leonardo Iturriaga-Centeno – each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.

Judge Fischer sentenced both defendants to 57 months in federal prison. Bugarin-Perez, the case’s lead defendant, fled after being freed on bond in this case.

          The Drug Enforcement Administration investigated this case.

By Raul

Raul Hernandez is a former journalist. He has worked as a newspaper reporter for more than 30 years at the El Paso Herald-Post, El Paso Times, Press Enterprise in Riverside, California and the Ventura County Star in California. He was a court reporter for more than 20 years.

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