Border Patrol says illegal crossers boarded plane 

A pilot allegedly tried to fly three Mexicans in a private plane after they illegally entered the United States, the latest in a string of incidents that authorities said Tuesday suggests smugglers are using aircraft to travel a remote California desert.

The pilot was apparently trying to avoid Border Patrol checkpoints on highways that run through California's Imperial Valley, said Ricardo Sandoval, an assistant special agent in charge of investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Centro.

The Border Patrol said the Cessna was the fourth plane it seized in connection with smuggling migrants since last year in its El Centro sector, which stretches over 71 miles of the 1,954-mile border between the United States and Mexico. One suspected smuggler who was arrested earlier this month kept his Piper plane at the Brawley Municipal Airport.

Private planes have long been used to smuggle drugs but rarely people.

"I can't recall hearing any other cases. There may have been, but this is the first I've heard of planes being used to smuggle people," said Shawn Moran, spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents agents.

Sandoval said he knew of planes being used to smuggle Chinese in the past but not Mexicans.

Lino Rodriguez, 30, pleaded not guilty to smuggling charges Monday and was released on $20,000 bail. The three Mexicans who allegedly boarded his plane were held as witnesses.

Investigators followed the passengers from a Motel 6 in El Centro, 120 miles east of San Diego, to the Imperial County Airport at around 2 a.m. Friday, according to the complaint. They blocked the plane as it began to taxi toward the runway.

Rodriguez is a U.S. citizen from Hemet, east of Los Angeles, where the plane was headed, Sandoval said. He said planes seized in the past were destined for Long Beach and Santa Monica.

The migrants crossed on foot at a border crossing in downtown Calexico and were held briefly at a home there before going to the motel, Sandoval said. Three others who were found in the motel room were returned to Mexico.

The migrants told authorities that they were to pay $2,500 each for reaching their destinations, which struck authorities as surprisingly low. Border Patrol officials say typical smuggling fees for entering the U.S. illegally have soared to between $3,200 and $3,500 as more enforcement has helped drive apprehensions to 40-year-lows.

Rodriguez's attorney, Mahir Sherif, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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