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South Texas nurse practitioner sentenced to 6 1/2 years in federal prison for drug trafficking

MCALLEN, Texas – A south Texas nurse practitioner was sentenced Thursday to 6 ½ years in federal prison for trafficking marijuana.

This sentence was announced by U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas. This investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with the assistance of the Starr County Sheriff’s Office.

Celia Raquel Zuniga, 45, of Rio Grande City, was sentenced to 78 months in prison and four years of supervised release. At the Dec. 12 hearing, the court enhanced her sentence, finding she obstructed justice when she perjured herself while testifying at trial. She was further ordered to pay a $5,000 fine for each of two counts. In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez noted while Zuniga performed a great service to the community as a nurse practitioner, she was causing great harm to the community because of her criminal activity. Zuniga was convicted Sept. 25 of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

According to court documents, Starr County sheriff deputies testified that on Dec. 6, 2012 they observed three vehicles driving in tandem going east on Expressway 83 near the county line between Starr and Hidalgo counties. They then observed the middle vehicle change lanes without signaling. Deputies conducted a traffic stop and identified Zuniga as the driver. At that time, deputies noticed a strong odor of marijuana emitting from the vehicle and a law enforcement canine subsequently alerted to the presence of narcotics.

Initially, Zuniga lied to deputies and denied there was anything illegal in her vehicle. However, after stepping out of her vehicle and when asked a second time, Zuniga admitted there was something illegal inside. Deputies recovered 24 bundles of marijuana, weighing about 243 kilograms (536 pounds) from the car.

Zuniga testified she had been kidnapped by multiple men while she was driving to a friend’s house. She claimed they took her to a cemetery while bundles of marijuana were loaded into her vehicle. She further testified they told her she would need to drive the vehicle to McAllen or else something would happen to her family.

The jury was not convinced of Zuniga’s claim of duress and ultimately found her guilty as charged.

Previously released on bond, after the verdict Zuniga was taken into custody where she will remain pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Ann Leo, Southern District of Texas, prosecuted this case.