ARTHUR H. ROTSTEIN
Associated Press Writer
TUCSON, Ariz.- FBI agents posing as cocaine traffickers have snared another 16 former and current soldiers and law enforcement officers in Arizona who agreed to take bribes to transport drugs past law enforcement checkpoints.
All 16 agreed to enter guilty pleas before a federal magistrate as participants in a bribery and extortion conspiracy, a Justice Department official said Wednesday.
In May, another 17 former and current law enforcement officers and soldiers pleaded guilty in the same conspiracy, which operated from January 2002 through March 2004 and involved the transport of about 1,474 pounds of cocaine, acting Assistant Attorney General John Richter said in a release.
In addition, seven enlisted Air Force personnel were charged last spring in military court under the same cocaine conspiracy. A female airman who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and wrongful possession of cocaine in the first case to go before a military court was convicted Wednesday of a third charge of privacy violation, spokesmen at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base said.
The 16 included two current and three former members of the Arizona Army National Guard, seven former corrections officers with the Arizona Department of Corrections, two former soldiers, an ex-Marine and a former Nogales, Ariz., police officer.
According to court documents, each defendant agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy for taking cash bribes totaling more than $75,500 from people they thought were drug traffickers to escort at least one shipment from locations including Tucson and Nogales to such points as Phoenix and Las Vegas.
The defendants wore their official uniforms, had official identification and used official vehicles to pass through Border Patrol, Arizona Department of Public Safety and Nevada police checkpoints and to prevent police stops, searches and seizures where necessary, Richter said.
Justice Department officials said the defendants acted on behalf of what they thought was a narcotics trafficking organization involved in moving cocaine from Arizona across the Southwest.
The government said some took additional bribes after recruiting other officials whom they thought were corrupt.
Officials said the FBI received a tip about an individual and created a phony trafficking outfit in December 2001 to lure police and military personnel with money to help distribute its cocaine or to let it get through checkpoints they were guarding.
In one instance, in August 2002, some of the defendants drove to a remote desert airstrip near Benson, Ariz., to meet an aircraft flown by undercover FBI agents.
The fully uniformed defendants supervised as some 132 pounds of cocaine were unloaded from the plane into their three official government vehicles, including two Humvees belonging to the Arizona Air National Guard.
The defendants then drove the contraband to a Phoenix resort, where another undercover FBI agent, posing as a drug trafficker, paid them in cash, officials said.
The undercover FBI agents used real cocaine throughout the sting operation, but it always remained under FBI possession or observation, Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said.
The 17 defendants who pleaded guilty earlier in May in U.S. District Court accepted cash bribes totaling more than $222,000.
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The penalty for a conspiracy conviction could be up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, though Justice Department prosecutor John W. Scott said in May that all those pleading guilty probably would start out facing sentences of 34 to 36 months plus the fine. Sentences could be more lenient depending on the cooperation of the defendants.