10/21/2008

Ex-border agents who vanished finally captured

Related article:
Border agents under investigation vanish

By Elliot Spagat
Associated Press

PASADENA, Calif. — Two former Border Patrol agents were arrested in Mexico after more than two years on the run and were charged in the U.S. with taking bribes to help illegal immigrants cross the border, authorities said Monday.

A federal indictment unsealed Monday in San Diego accuses brothers Raul and Fidel Villarreal of taking bribes, smuggling illegal immigrants, tampering with witnesses and conspiring to launder money.

The brothers were captured by Mexican authorities Saturday at a gated apartment complex near the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, said Mike Unzueta, special agent in charge of investigations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. They vanished in July 2006.

"I think they were very, very surprised," Unzueta said.

ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said Raul, who was a Border Patrol spokesman, looked as if he had aged 10 years.

The indictment charges that Raul, 39, and Fidel, 40, picked up illegal immigrants in their Border Patrol vehicles and released them since at least the spring of 2005.

The U.S. attorney's office in San Diego said it would seek to extradite the Villarreal brothers and two others charged in the indictment, a Mexican man and woman who were also arrested Saturday at the apartment in connection with the alleged smuggling operation.

"Those who betray their offices and the public trust will find this office's pursuit of justice thorough, unrelenting and uncompromising," said U.S. Attorney Karen Hewitt.

An attorney for Raul Villarreal, Jan Ronis, said his client would plead not guilty.

The Villareals are naturalized U.S. citizens from Mexico, which means they can be deported, Ronis said.

"There is no need to go through extradition proceedings," Ronis said. "That would be time-consuming and expensive and they can simply be deported."

The Villarreals were veteran agents in the San Diego area. Raul served as a public face for the agency, often granting interviews to Spanish-language media.

The former agents are suspected of helping to smuggle Mexicans and Brazilians into the United States, Unzueta said. It was unclear how long or how many people were allegedly involved.

Their disappearance in July 2006 derailed the investigation, which was led by ICE.

"We're interested to see what happens next," said Border Patrol spokesman Daryl Reed. The allegations, he said, "were a complete shock to all of us."

Mexico's attorney general office in Tijuana did not respond to a request for comment.

A federal law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the investigation, previously told the AP that the brothers failed to show up for work one Monday morning in July 2006 and later told supervisors they were quitting due to a family illness.

The indictment handed down in April also charges that Armando Garcia, 40, served as a foot guide in the operation and that he and Claudia Gonzalez, 32, bribed the Border Patrol agents. Besides bribery, the Tijuana residents were also charged with smuggling illegal immigrants, witness tampering and conspiring to launder money.

The indictment says the Villarreal brothers and the other defendants threatened witnesses in the grand jury investigation with "physical force."

The AP could not locate attorneys for Fidel Villarreal, Garcia or Gonzalez.

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