SAN DIEGO (AP) — A federal jury found two former Border Patrol agents guilty of smuggling hundreds of people into the U.S. in Border Patrol vehicles in San Diego federal court on Friday, according to prosecutors.
Following a five-week trial, Raul and Fidel Villarreal (VEE-uh-ray-AL), were found guilty of smuggling illegal immigrants for money, bringing illegal immigrants into the U.S., receiving bribes by public officials and conspiracy to launder money.
Raul Villarreal was long a public face of the Border Patrol who frequently appeared on television as an agency spokesman.
Prosecutors said Raul Villarreal started a smuggling ring that brought Mexicans and Brazilians to the U.S. illegally in Border Patrol vehicles and made his older brother and fellow agent Fidel Villarreal one of his first recruits.
Both brothers had pleaded not guilty in a case that was one of the highest-profile corruption cases to sting the Border Patrol since it went on a hiring spree during the last decade.
The investigation began in May 2005 with an informant's tip to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Investigators installed cameras on poles where migrants were dropped off, planted undercover recording devices, put tracking instruments on Border Patrol vehicles and followed a smuggling load by airplane.
The prosecution also relied on accounts of alleged accomplices and migrants who entered the U.S. illegally, including some who identified Fidel Villarreal in photographs. One 24-year-old Brazilian woman said she paid $12,000 to be taken across the border in "a police car."
Federal prosecutors said the brothers were tipped off they were under investigation in June 2006, prompting them to flee to Mexico.
Shortly after settling in Tijuana, a district police commander in the Mexican border city who allegedly shuttled the Villarreals' customers in squad cars was killed in a hail of about 200 bullets. The brothers were arrested in Tijuana in October 2008 — more than two years after abruptly quitting the Border Patrol — and extradited to the U.S. to face charges of human smuggling, witness tampering and bribery.
David Nick, Raul Villarreal's attorney, had argued the prosecution relied on witnesses who had a strong motive to lie and surveillance yielded no evidence of wrongdoing by his client.
Nick said he couldn't comment on the verdict because of a gag order. A message for Fidel Villarreal's attorney was not immediately returned.
The Villarreal brothers are due in court Nov. 16 for sentencing. They face a maximum of 50 years in prison and at least $1.25 million in penalties.
Armando Garcia was also found guilty Friday of charges of smuggling illegal immigrants for money, bringing illegal immigrants into the U.S. and conspiracy to launder money
Another defendant Claudia Gonzalez pleaded guilty to conspiracy smuggle illegal immigrants for money, bribery and money laundering charges in Dec. 2009 and is due for sentencing Sept. 10.
U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy praised the agencies involved in prosecution, saying in a statement that stopping "corruption and maintaining the integrity of our federal border enforcement personnel is critical to U.S. border security."