SAN DIEGO–Two former San Diego-area U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol agents face up to 50 years in prison following their conviction last Friday for operating a lucrative human smuggling ring that brought hundreds of Mexicans and Brazilians illegally into the United States using official agency vehicles.
Raul Villarreal, 42, and his brother, Fidel Villarreal, 44, both of San Diego, and a co-defendant, Armando Garcia, 44, of Tijuana, Mexico, who acted as a foot guide for the ring, were found guilty by a jury on multiple felony counts of conspiracy to smuggle aliens, money laundering and receiving bribes. The defendants will be sentenced in November by U.S. District Court Judge John Houston. In addition to prison time, the defendants could be required to pay more than $1.25 million in fines.
A fourth co-defendant, Claudia Gonzalez, of Tijuana, pleaded guilty in December 2009 to conspiracy to smuggle aliens for financial gain, bribery and money laundering. Gonzalez is scheduled to be sentenced in September.
Friday’s verdicts are the latest developments in a probe by U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), aided by ICE Homeland Security Investigations, that began after the agency received a tip in 2005 involving allegations of public corruption tied to an alien smuggling ring.
“Raul and Fidel Villarreal committed an egregious breach of the deep trust placed in DHS employees by the American people they swore to protect and serve,” said Joe Jeronimo, special agent in charge for OPR Western Region. “While their actions are atypical of the dedication and integrity demonstrated by the vast majority of DHS employees, this verdict should nonetheless send a message about the serious consequences facing those who would exploit their positions and violate the law. The ICE Office of Professional Responsibility and the DHS Office of Inspector General will continue to aggressively investigate such allegations and seek to prosecute perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law.”
All four defendants were arrested in Tijuana in October 2008 on arrest warrants obtained by ICE. The defendants were then extradited in March 2009 to the United States to face the federal charges.
According to court documents, ICE special agents conducted extensive surveillance of the defendants’ smuggling operations, using surveillance aircraft, GPS devices and video cameras mounted on poles along the California-Mexico border. The video showed Fidel Villarreal picking up groups of undocumented immigrants with his official Border Patrol vehicle and transporting them to designated staging locations to await their transportation into the interior.