US Border Patrol agents convicted in $2 million human smuggling case

US Border Patrol (AFP Photo / John Moore)
Two US Border Patrol agents have been found guilty of running a profitable human smuggling ring that may have earned US$2 million.

The brothers Raul Villarreal, 42, and Fidel Villarreal, 43, were convicted of using their power for their own advantage, charging money to help hundreds of illegal immigrants enter the US from Mexico.

The two heard their verdicts after a five-week trial that was concluded by a one-day deliberation by the jury.

“They made the border work for them,” Assistant US Attorney Timothy Salel told jurors.

The Villarreals, who used Border Patrol agency vehicles to illegally shuttle Mexicans and Brazilians to the US, were convicted of conspiracy, bringing in illegal immigrants for financial gain, receiving bribes and money laundering.

Prosecutors say that Raul started the human smuggling ring and recruited his brother and fellow agent to join him. The brothers charged thousands of dollars to bring each illegal immigrant across the border. A 24-year-old Brazilian woman told prosecutors she paid $12,000 to ride across the border in what she called a “police car.”

Nearly a dozen immigrants who had been smuggled in by the ring testified at the brothers’ trial.

To catch the Border Patrol agents in action, investigators mounted video cameras on cars, installed GPS trackers and used surveillance from airplanes to gather information about the ring’s operation.

Accomplices and migrants who were caught entering the country illegally were also a source of information for the prosecution.

In 2006, the two brothers caught word of the investigation and fled to Mexico, settling in the border city of Tijuana. Two years later, they were caught and extradited to the US to face federal charges.

The brothers are facing a maximum of 50 years in prison and a minimum $1.25 million in penalties.

Between 6 and 7 million illegal immigrants in the US evaded immigration inspectors by entering the country illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.  Each year, about half a million more make it across the border.

The Border Patrol agency is a mobile uniformed law enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, established to prevent illegal immigration.

Joe Jeronimo, a special agent in charge of the professional responsibility office at the DHS, said the brothers’ actions are “atypical” of Border Patrol officials, but the case sends “a message about the serious consequences facing those who would exploit their positions and violate the laws.”

The widely publicized case of human smuggling serves as an embarrassment for an agency whose mission it is to prevent the very crime that its officers partook in.