A Honduran national could face up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced later this year for his part in an elaborate plot to smuggle cocaine into the country through a partially submerged tunnel, using scuba gear.
Evelio Padilla-Zepeda, 28, pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in San Diego to possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, the Times of San Diego reports.
He was arrested April 25 after a video surveillance operator notified U.S. Border Patrol agents of his presence alongside a canal near Calexico, California.
According to the prosecutor's Aug. 18 statement of facts form the case, agents found Padilla-Zepeda dripping wet and dressed in a wet suit.
A subsequent search of the area uncovered “rebreather” type scuba diving equipment and packages of cocaine totaling about 55 pounds, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherry Walker Hobson, who prosecuted the case, told KNSD.
Prosecutors said investigators found Padilla-Zepeda after he emerged from a tunnel that originated in a house in Mexicali, Mexico. The tunnel descended deep enough below ground that parts of it were submerged. It exited in the All-American Canal, on the U.S. side of the border. The rebreather type scuba equipment that agents found would have prevented bubbles from rising to the surface of the canal, authorities said, according to The Guardian.
In his plea deal, Padilla-Zepeda said he had planned to swim another mile and a half up the canal to drop off the cocaine, but was apprehended before he made it that far, KNSD reports.
“Drug traffickers always try different ways to go over the border, under the border and through the border,” Walker Hobson said. “And this was a creative way. But they got caught.”
According to the criminal complaint against him obtained by The Guardian, Padilla-Zepeda said he had come to Mexico from Honduras believing that he would be helping smuggle people, not drugs, across the border. Once in Mexicali, he said, he had no other option.
His sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 7. In addition to a possible 20-year prison sentence he also faces up to $1 million in fines.
Authorities have not said if other arrests were made in connection with the elaborate scheme.
Photo Credit: KNSD News courtesy of U.S. Attorney’s Office