09/16/2006

San Diego border agent pleads guilty to accepting cash, cars to let human smugglers in

By ALLISON HOFFMAN
Associated Press Writer

SAN DIEGO- A former border inspector pleaded guilty Thursday to accepting cash bribes and luxury cars in exchange for allowing smugglers to sneak hundreds of illegal immigrants from Mexico into the country.

Richard Elizalda, 55, a 10-year veteran border inspector for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, admitted to one count of accepting bribes as a public official and two counts of bringing illegal aliens into the country for financial gain.

He was originally charged with 15 counts.

Elizalda sent text messages directing drivers to his inspection lane at the San Ysidro border crossing and then waved them through, Assistant U.S. Attorney Linda Frakes said in San Diego federal court.

In return, Elizalda received as much as $1,000 for each immigrant, taking as much as $120,000 in cash from smugglers starting in 2004 until his arrest in June, Frakes said. Agents seized $36,170 in cash from Elizalda's home, along with a 2000 Lexus and a 2005 BMW given to him by the ringleaders of the smuggling ring.

He faces up to 35 years in prison and $820,000 in fines.

Elizalda said little in court. Asked by U.S. Magistrate Judge William McCurine, Jr., how he pleaded, he replied in a quiet voice, "Guilty."

Also Thursday, another defendant in the indictment, Kenneth Web, pleaded guilty to one count of bringing illegal aliens into the United States. Frakes said he worked as a smuggler, bringing as many as 99 immigrants into the country without documentation.

He faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison and $250,000 in fines.

Customs and Border Protection has seen a number of instances of corruption recently. In July, a Border Patrol agent who was an illegal immigrant himself was sentenced to five years in prison for smuggling more than 100 illegal immigrants into the U.S. from Mexico near San Diego, some of them in his government truck.

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