NOGALES, Ariz. - You can imagine how this story might have ended.
The defendant, Eduardo Bojorquez, would have been convicted, by a jury or through a guilty plea, and sentenced to prison. Nobody would have been the wiser about how the conviction was won.
This border town would have taken note that another of the former city public works employees, arrested for drug trafficking in a very public way on June 20, 2012, had gone to the slammer. They would have clucked and moved on.
But something strange happened on the way to prison.
A couple of young prosecutors, relatively recent graduates of the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law, saw something wrong: a federal agent who they thought had lied about the case. Rather than working things out behind the scenes, they blew the whistle.
Assistant Santa Cruz County Attorney Vanessa Cartwright, who grew up in Tucson and graduated from the law school in 2007, alerted her boss, Liliana Ortega, the chief deputy overseeing criminal cases, a 1998 UA law grad. They are two of just nine attorneys in the office, in a town that is practically fed-ville — home to hundreds and hundreds of federal agents.
On Sept. 16, Ortega wrote a jarring letter to the man in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations office in Nogales:
“One issue is the case agent’s late disclosure of a surveillance video showing Mr. Bojorquez involved in the drug smuggling offense. Although this video existed since 2009, the agent did not make it available for viewing until August of 2013, a few weeks before trial. This late disclosure, if not intentional, was at minimum grossly negligent on Agent (Eduardo) Cota’s part.”
“More disturbing was the content of the video. The video directly contradicted statements that Agent Cota made to the prosecutor, to defense counsel and in the agent’s own reports. The agent also omitted vital information from the reports and from his discussions with the prosecutor that would have impacted the filing of charges against Mr. Bojorquez.”
This was Ortega’s kicker: “Our office has grave concerns not only as to the facts of the case, but also about Agent Cota’s credibiity. As such, we feel this office can no longer prosecute any cases involving Agent Cota.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has removed the agent, known universally in Nogales as Eddie Cota, from investigating cases and put him on desk duty. They’re conducting an internal investigation and deciding what to do next, spokeswoman Amber Cargile said in a statement.
This is remarkable in part because Cota is a well-known agent in the town, having come up through the ranks of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department and Nogales Police Department before signing on with the feds in 2000. It’s also an extraordinarily rare, if not unique, act in recent Nogales history, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada told me Tuesday.
That’s something coming from a man who has spent 45 years in Nogales law enforcement, 20 of them as sheriff.
I met Cota in 1999 when covering the discovery of two tunnels used for smuggling, one of which came up at Sacred Heart Church, the town’s Catholic parish. He struck me then as a hotshot young investigator who knew his way around Ambos Nogales, as the border cities on both sides of the line are known.
In this case, Cota aimed at city of Nogales workers. A presentence report on co-defendant Fernando Islas Jr. says agents approached him in November 2009, told him they knew he was involved in smuggling and persuaded him to inform on other city workers in the underworld business.
Mysteriously, federal prosecutors did not take the case, but in 2012, county prosecutors agreed to. That led to a very public set of arrests on June 20, 2012: All of the city’s public works employees were called to a meeting, and three of them — Bojorquez, Islas and Francisco Rene Fuentes — were arrested by Cota and other agents before the surprised group.
The downfall came in August when Cartwright first saw a 2009 surveillance video that revealed an informant who also was a source of information in the case was taking part in the crimes that Bojorquez and the others were accused of, said Islas’ attorney, Matt Davidson.
The prosecutors’ reaction was quick and decisive enough to shake up Nogales law enforcement. Cartwright, an exuberant personality with multicolored nails and a gumball machine on her office wall, said she and Ortega had no doubt what to do, and County Attorney George Silva agreed.
“We acted quickly, and I have no second thoughts about it,” Cartwright told me Tuesday. “Sometimes guilty people go free, but that’s the way it works because we play by the rules.”
Indeed, prosecutors have dismissed the case against Bojorquez and are reviewing the cases against co-defendants Islas and Fuentes, both of whom have already pleaded guilty.
But the reverberations could go even further. Ortega has asked ICE to find out which other county cases Cota worked on, while acknowledging that most of his cases were likely federal prosecutions handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
All this because, as an appreciative Davidson put it, “The prosecutors were straight up, and not only that, they were timely.”