By Julie Watson
SAN DIEGO — A federal judge on Friday sentenced two former Border Patrol agents to at least 30 years in prison for running a ring that smuggled more than 500 illegal immigrants into the United States.
U.S. District Court Judge John Houston sentenced Raul Villarreal to 35 years in prison for being the ring leader and ordered him to pay a $250,000 fine. His brother, Fidel Villarreal, was sentenced to 30 years for managing the illicit business.
The sentences are among the longest given to border law enforcement officials for corruption.
Houston said he gave the severe sentences to deter other agents who have been entrusted by the American people to protect the border. The judge called their smuggling operation "disgusting" and a threat to national security.
Prosecutors said Raul Villarreal — who made television appearances as an agency spokesman and once played the role of a smuggler in a public service ad — recruited his brother to his ring. The veteran agents worked in cahoots with a corrupt Tijuana police officer and a network of others, including foot guides and drivers.
The agents would abandon their job duties manning the border to transport the migrants in Border Patrol vehicles — sometimes several times a day from the Mexican city of Tijuana to a rugged mountainous area along the California border, federal officials said. Prosecutors said they smuggled in as many as 1,000 Mexicans and Brazilians; the judge put the figure at more than 500.
The ring smuggled in immigrants in groups of 10 and charged them about $10,000 per group, said prosecutors who alleged the brothers made more than $1 million from the scheme. The judge put the figure closer to $700,000.
"This long-term guaranteed method of bringing aliens into the United States was disgusting, pervasive and impacted significantly the national interest," Houston told the court before handing down their sentences.
Raul Villarreal thanked the court for giving him a "good trial, a fair trial." His brother echoed that. They did not show any emotion when the sentences were announced.
The federal probe began in May 2005 when an informant tipped off the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Investigators installed cameras in areas where migrants were dropped off, planted recording devices and placed tracking instruments on Border Patrol vehicles. They also trailed the ring's smuggling operations by airplane.
Prosecutors said when the brothers learned they were being investigated in June 2006, they quit their jobs and fled to Tijuana.
Two years later, the brothers were arrested there and extradited to the U.S. where they were charged with human smuggling, witness tampering and bribery.
Raul Villarreal's attorney, David Nick, had argued the prosecution's witnesses were not credible and surveillance yielded no evidence his client was the ring leader.
Fidel's attorney, Zenia Gilg, echoed that argument, saying the prosecution's case rested largely on two alleged accomplices who were promised leniency for testifying and "inconsistent statements" from migrants.
Gilg said an appeal will be filed.
"I was just disappointed," Gilg said after the sentencing. "The one thing I'm troubled by is the credibility that was given to the government's lead witness (an alleged smuggler). I felt the jury had rejected everything he said."
The Border Patrol has suffered a string of such embarrassments since doubling its size in less than a decade, including the case of an agent who pleaded guilty in April to smuggling marijuana while on duty along the Arizona-Mexico border.
But prosecutors and Judge Houston said the Villarreal case stands out as being among the worst corruption cases.
"They used their positions as Border Patrol agents to line their pockets," Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Salel said, adding later: "Unlike other corruption cases where agents have been led astray to join an organization, these agents created the organization. They called the shots. They were the ring leaders."
The defense asked the judge to request that the brothers be locked up at the same prison, but Houston declined.
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Copyright 2013 Associated Press