SAN DIEGO — A federal judge Friday sentenced two former Border Patrol agents to at least 30 years in prison for running a ring that illegally smuggled more than 500 immigrants into the United States.
U.S. District 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 with the job of protecting the border. The judge called their smuggling operation “disgusting” and a threat to national security.
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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 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 the sentences.
The federal investigation began in May 2005, when an informant tipped off U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Prosecutors said that 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.