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June 24, 2013San Diego, CA, United StatesOperational

2 ex-Border Patrol agents sentenced for running alien smuggling scheme

SAN DIEGO – Two San Diego-area brothers who formerly served as U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol agents were sentenced Friday for orchestrating a scheme to smuggle more than 1,000 illegal immigrants into the United States in exchange for more than $1 million in bribes.

Raul and Fidel Villarreal, who received prison terms of 35 and 30 years respectively, were convicted last year by a federal jury of conspiracy to bring in illegal aliens for financial gain; multiple counts of bringing in illegal aliens for financial gain; conspiracy to launder money; and receiving bribes. In addition to the prison terms, the court also ordered each brother to pay a $250,000 fine.

The charges were the result of a multi-agency investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) that began in 2005. ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General provided substantial assistance with the case.

At Friday’s sentencing, U.S. District Judge John A. Houston told the brothers he was "disgusted" by their actions. The judge also noted that ignoring their duty to protect the border "impacted national security," and that he wanted the lengthy sentences to send a message that such a serious violation of the public’s trust would not be tolerated.

Co-conspirator, Armando Garcia, 44, of Tijuana, Mexico, was convicted along with the Villarreal brothers in August 2012. He is scheduled to be sentenced July 22.

A fourth defendant in the case, Claudia Gonzalez, also of Tijuana, pleaded guilty Dec.10, 2009, to conspiracy to bring in illegal aliens for financial gain, bribery and money laundering. Gonzalez was sentenced in August to time served, which was 46 months.

All four defendants were arrested in Tijuana in October 2008 on warrants obtained by HSI special agents. The defendants were extradited to the U.S. in March 2009 to face the federal charges.

"The audacious way these brothers so easily tossed aside their loyalty to their country and to fellow agents who put their lives on the line every day protecting our borders, is appalling," said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. "This sentence provides justice for a public betrayed, and reflects that this was, by far, among the most egregious violations of the public’s trust we’ve seen by federal officials in many years."

"This sentencing sends a clear message: DHS will not tolerate any type of employee misconduct, especially criminal activity that undermines the core values of our organization and the thousands of DHS employees who uphold those values in their mission to protect the American public," said Joe Jeronimo, special agent in charge for the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility, Western Region. "I commend the investigators and prosecutors who worked tirelessly to ensure that justice was fully served in a criminal case that unfortunately involved a very egregious breach of public trust."

Raul Villarreal, 43, the younger brother, was hired by the U.S. Border Patrol in 1995. He worked at the Imperial Beach station, eventually becoming the public information officer for the agency’s San Diego Sector.

His older brother, Fidel Villarreal, 45, became a Border Patrol agent in 1998 and rose up through the ranks, ultimately serving as a supervisor at the Brown Field station.

The Villarreal brothers operated the smuggling organization for 14 months during 2005 and 2006.

According to court documents, HSI agents conducted extensive surveillance of the defendants’ smuggling operations, using aircraft, GPS devices and video cameras mounted on poles along the California-Mexico border. The video showed Fidel Villarreal picking up groups of illegal aliens with his official Border Patrol vehicle and transporting them to designated staging locations to await their transportation into the interior.

The investigation revealed the brothers promised their customers a "guaranteed method," referring to the use of a shuttle driven by a Tijuana police officer which transported aliens to the border where they were met by the Villarreal brothers in uniform.