Two Border Patrol agents were convicted Friday in federal court in Tucson of violating the civil rights of four drug smugglers.
After deliberating most of the morning, about 3 p.m. the jury convicted Dario Castillo, 25, and Ramon Zuniga, 31, of four counts of civil-rights deprivation under color of law. Rather than arrest four Mexican smugglers intercepted the night of Nov. 12, 2008, the agents made them strip off their socks, shoes and jackets, forced some of them to eat marijuana and ordered them to flee into the desert.
The convictions are misdemeanors for Zuniga, but felonies for Castillo because the jury found he set fire to the smugglers' belongings.
The agents were found not guilty of a conspiracy charge.
Castillo was also found not guilty of tampering with a witness, the most serious charge.
A felony conviction for deprivation of rights under color of law carries a maximum penalty of 10 years and/or a $250,000 fine; a misdemeanor conviction under the statute carries a penalty of one year and/or a $100,000 fine.
Mike Bloom, representing Castillo, said he was disappointed with the verdict and would appeal.
Castillo and Zuniga would not comment at the end of the trial.
Moments before the verdict was read, Zuniga's wife was visibly nervous, biting her lower lip and trying to hold back tears until she heard the first "guilty" and couldn't contain them anymore.
Bloom placed his hand on Castillo's back and shook his head as the verdict was read.
Both agents are on unpaid suspensions, but attorney Sean Chapman said Zuniga's employment with the Border Patrol was probably going to be terminated.
"I think the jury did their best to balance the dangers involved in the situation with what actually happened," Chapman said. "We were given a very good trial by Judge (Jennifer) Zipps. The jury was very conscientious."
He said he is sorry his client got convicted, but Zuniga is going to move forward.
That night in November, Zuniga and Castillo were working out of a forward operating base of the Ajo station a few miles from the border. Two other agents initially spotted a group carrying backpacks with marijuana and one of them called for backup. When they approached the smugglers, at least eight escaped, leaving four behind. What happened later is what the defense disputed during the two-week trial.
According to prosecutors, even though there were more agents at the scene, only Zuniga and Castillo committed the civil-rights violations.
Zuniga never denied he lost his composure and made them chew marijuana, Chapman said.
Bloom disputed that Castillo had lit the fire.
Both defense attorneys argued Jose Grajeda, a horse patrol agent, was in control that night because he had seniority over the two agents.
They argued there was a culture among the horse patrol unit of letting people go and only taking the narcotics, meaning Grajeda told the smugglers to flee, not their clients.
The defense used a report as key evidence, in which Grajeda said he and agent Aaron Veckey, who initially spotted the group, seized 21 bundles of marijuana that night but didn't find any subjects.
The defense called inconsistencies in the testimony of several agents and supervisors lies.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Markovich told the jury in his closing arguments that it's not a defense whether others were involved.
"You might not like it that others didn't get prosecuted, but you took an oath you could be fair," he said Thursday.
Even if the drug smugglers were "mouthing off," law enforcement officers are not above the law, he told jurors.
"This verdict sends a clear message that abuse of authority by federal law enforcement officers will not be tolerated in our society," U.S. Attorney for Arizona John Leonardo said in a written statement.
"The defendants' abuse of authority in this case was in stark contrast to the vast majority of dedicated, hard-working federal law enforcement officers who do their best every day, under difficult circumstances," he said, in part.
Chapman said Zuniga is very upset but he knows he made a mistake and takes responsibility.
At the end of the trial, both families walked together towards the elevator, Zuniga and his wife holding on to their 4-year-old son's hand.
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Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at email@example.com or at 573-4213.