A substantial amount of drugs are seized every year in San Diego and Imperial Counties. The number of ways drugs enter the United States is limitless. Southern California is considered a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area by the Federal Government, which devotes considerable resources to arrest drug smugglers. The large maritime and land border areas provide ample opportunities for drug trafficking.

Most of our international clients are arrested at or in between official ports of entry or on in United States territory, but Federal law allows the government to extradite citizens of other countries for drug trafficking or smuggling charges who are not present in the country if there is an agreement with the suspect’s country of origin or residence. Additionally, non-citizens in foreign countries often can be transferred to U.S. custody for immediate transfer when presented with a federal indictment or complaint.

Drug criminality

21 U.S.C. 952 | Importation of Controlled Substances

The most commonly charged international drug crime is 21 U.S.C. § 952 which makes it a crime for a person to import into the United States any controlled substance. Importation of drugs is strictly a federal offense because only the federal government has jurisdiction to prosecute someone bringing illegal drugs into the country from outside the country.

For a defendant to be convicted of importation, the prosecution must prove that:

  1. The substance that is entering the county is an illegal drug; and
  2. That it crossed the boundary of the United States to enter the country.

Penalties for 21 U.S.C. § 952

Drug Importation convictions are generally identical to those proscribed for domestic drug trafficking convictions.

Related Drug Smuggling Charges

21 U.S.C. § 848​ | Continuing Criminal Enterprise

The Federal Continuing Criminal Enterprise statute (commonly called “CCE”) was enacted in 1970 to help combat drug cartels, dubbed “the kingpin statute,” this charge targets leaders of drug organizations. Under the CCE statute, it is a crime to commit a series of felony drug crimes in concert with five or more individuals. In addition to the criminal penalties, the Continuing Criminal Enterprise contains a hefty asset forfeiture provision. As a result, the Federal Government will seize all assets derived from the criminal businesses and their activities.

The Difference Between CCE And RICO

21 U.S.C. § 848 CCE  and 18 U.S.C. § 1962 – Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) are two complex federal laws specifically designed to target organized crime. While often considered together in a legal setting, they are different in scope. The CCE Statute focuses specifically on large-scale drug trafficking operations, and these elements must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. The defendant must have violated one of the substantive drug crimes under Title 21 of the United States Code;
  2. The violations must be a part of a continuing series of federal drug felony violations;
  3. The series of violations must be undertaken with at least five other people;
  4. The defendant is a leader, organizer, or is in a supervisory or a management position with respect to those five people;
  5. The defendant must obtain substantial income or resources from the Continuing Criminal Enterprise.


On the other hand, RICO violations cover a broader scope of crimes related to racketeering (for example, murder, extortion, illegal gambling, embezzlement, drug trafficking, and more). RICO laws enable the government to prosecute leaders of criminal organizations for the same crimes they assign others to commit.

Common Defenses Used In CCE Cases

If you are charged with operating a Continuing Criminal Enterprise, you need experienced criminal defense counsel to review your case and develop a defense strategy. This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are some common defenses that are raised in CCE cases:

  • Prior offenses are not part of a continuing scheme. If the prosecutor cannot establish that the prior drug felonies are a part of the continuing series of drug violations, then the CCE conviction cannot be sustained.
  • Enterprise has fewer than five individuals. One of the requirements of a CCE charge is that the leader or organizer has oversight of at least five individuals. If it can be established that the individual did not supervise at least five individuals, then a person cannot be convicted of CCE.

21 U.S.C. § 846 | Attempt and Conspiracy

Federal criminal prosecutions that involve drug trafficking or smuggling often include accusations of drug-related criminal conspiracies. It should be noted that conspiracy charges are a frequently prosecuted crime in federal criminal courts. The concept of a conspiracy charge is an underlying criminal agreement between two or more people to commit a crime and has three primary elements:

  • There was an agreement to commit a crime;
  • There was intent to conspire to commit a crime; and
  • An overt act to execute the agreement.


If the intended crime of the conspiracy is to sell narcotics prohibited under federal law, then a federal prosecutor can charge the members of the conspiracy, commonly known as “co-conspirators,” with a violation of Section 846.

46 U.S.C. § 70503 | Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act

The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA) found in 46 U.S.C. § 70501-70508 was passed to help prevent drug smuggling and trafficking on the high seas. The Southern District of California sees many cases involving the MDLEA, and these cases most often involve foreign nationals who frequently must be extradited. The MDLEA is written and interpreted in a manner that gives the U.S. government, through the U.S. Coastguard, the ability to stop and search virtually any ship on the ocean. This jurisdiction has been extended to foreign nationals operating on land or as co-conspirators in a foreign nation.

(a) Prohibitions. —While onboard a covered vessel, an individual may not knowingly or intentionally—

  • (1) manufacture or distribute, or possess with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance;
  • (2) destroy (including jettisoning any item or scuttling, burning, or hastily cleaning a vessel), or attempt or conspire to destroy, property that is subject to forfeiture under section 511 (a) of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 (21 U.S.C. § 881 (a)); or
  • (3) conceal, or attempt or conspire to conceal, more than $100,000 in currency or other monetary instruments on the person of such individual or in any conveyance, article of luggage, merchandise, other containers, or a compartment of or aboard the covered vessel if that vessel is outfitted for smuggling.


(b) Extension Beyond Territorial Jurisdiction.—Subsection (a) applies even though the act is committed outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

International Drug Tunnels

18 U.S. Code § 555 | Border Tunnels and Passages

There have been so many underground tunnels found in the San Diego border area that a separate task force has been created to combat the digging of tunnels across the US/Mexico border. Tunnels are used to traffic humans and drugs and can be incredibly complex and lengthy.  

The San Diego Tunnel Task Force includes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Border Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the United States Attorney’s Office. With strong implications for border security, the government has tightened its enforcement and prosecution of these crimes.

18 U.S.C. § 555 specifies four separate acts with varying penalties.

Makes it a crime to construct or finance an international drug tunnel and carries with it a maximum sentence of 20 years.

Anyone who knows or recklessly disregards the construction or use of a tunnel on land that the person owns or controls can be charged with the crime. There is a maximum sentence of 10 years for a violation of this crime.

Any person who uses a tunnel to smuggle an alien, goods, or controlled substances unlawfully would be subject to a maximum term of imprisonment that is twice the maximum term of imprisonment applicable if the crime had been committed without the use of a tunnel or passage.

Anyone that attempts or conspires to violate § 555 (a-c) will be subject to the same penalties prescribed for the intended offense.

Defending And Beating Drug Smuggling Cases

Drug smuggling charges can arise from situations in which the prosecution has only circumstantial evidence of the defendant’s intent to import drugs. Typically, the circumstances  around smuggling cases make it easy for the Federal government to prove intent.

Recently, drug cartels have been targeting those that frequently cross the U.S./Mexico border and these people are secretly planting drugs in innocent victim’s vehicles, called “Blind Mules”, and then they remove the drugs from the vehicle when the victim has parked and leaves it unattended after successfully crossing the border.

Common legal strategies your attorney may be able to use to defend against drug smuggling charges include the following:

  • Duress or coercion could be a defense if someone was forced to smuggle drugs
  • You were unaware of the illicit nature of the substance.
  • You did not have the substance.
  • Someone used you as a “Blind Mule” to carry drugs without your knowledge.
  • Evidence was obtained as a result of an illegal search and seizure.
  • The arresting officer or agent did not have probable cause to stop or detain. 


The Border Defense Network is determined to help you and your family when you are faced with state or federal investigations or criminal charges. Fill out the form below, and we will be in touch.

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