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Federal Agents Bust Alleged Aircraft Smuggling Operation

While smugglers often use ultralight planes to bring drugs across the U.S-Mexico border, the use of private aircraft is rare. Yet, federal agents east of San Diego County say they've seized a Cessna plane in an alleged human smuggling operation.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said they stopped the plane at the Imperial County Airport last Friday.

On board were three undocumented immigrants, two women and a man, along with a pilot.

The pilot, Lino Rodriguez 30, is a U.S citizen and has been charged with federal human smuggling charges. He pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday.

Ricardo Sandoval, assistant special agent in charge of ICE in El Centro, said the plane was headed to Hemet, about 80 miles north of San Diego. The pilot was apparently trying to avoid Border Patrol checkpoints along the way, said Sandoval.

Agents have caught four planes in connection with human smuggling in Imperial County during the last two years.

A spokesperson for the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol said there have been human smuggling cases involving aircraft in the last couple of years.

Friday's bust in Imperial County is part of an ongoing investigation.

Sandoval said ICE had been conducting surveillance on the migrants from the time they crossed the border in downtown Calexico.

"The investigation involves six illegal immigrants, who crossed on foot at the port of entry," he said.

Before heading to the airport, Sandoval said they stopped at a stash house and a Motel 6 in El Centro.

"At the hotel, three of them were seen heading to the airport," he said.

Sandoval said smuggling fees ranged from $2,500 to $5,000 each.

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