Tucson trial against border agents a rarity

2013-04-14T00:00:00Z 2013-04-16T08:13:05Z Tucson trial against border agents a rarityPerla Trevizo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Criminal accusations leveled against Border Patrol agents are not unheard of, but what makes a current case in Tucson federal court unusual is that it made it to trial at all.

Border agents Dario Castillo, 25, and Ramon Zuniga, 31, forced four drug smugglers to eat marijuana, burned their belongings and told them to flee without shoes, socks or jackets on Nov. 12, 2008, prosecutors say.

Castillo is also charged with tampering with a witness for allegedly calling another agent to tell him what they were going to say. A conviction for conspiracy to deprive persons of civil rights and civil rights violations under color of law each carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both. Castillo could also face up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both if convicted of tampering with a witness.

The men have pleaded not guilty to violating the smugglers' civil rights, and the defense argues the person calling the shots was an agent at the scene who had seniority over Castillo and Zuniga.

Over the last seven years, 144 Customs and Border Protection employees have been arrested or indicted on corruption-related charges.

About 65 percent of them were stationed along the Southwest border, a Government Accountability Office report found last year.

But it's not very common that cases go to trial at the federal level, said Jim Calle, an attorney who represents the local Border Patrol union.

It's a rare case where defendants are willing to roll the dice and see where it goes, he said. "It either gets beat or the agents take a plea agreement."

Cases also tend to drag on for years.

Castillo and Zuniga were indicted almost three years after the alleged incident took place, and the trial started nearly two years after that.

"Frankly, in my opinion, there's no reason for cases to take that long," said Calle. "Justice is sacrificed when cases take this long."

Agents who are indicted on a felony charge are suspended without pay, he said, which is what happened to Castillo and Zuniga.

From fiscal years 2006 through 2011, 32,390 allegations - ranging from facilitating drug smuggling to losing a badge - were made against CBP employees, the GAO report shows.

But there are not many corruption investigations that ultimately rise to criminal prosecution, said Calle, sometimes because it's hard to get the evidence or because the allegations are false.

A former Customs and Border Protection officer was convicted in February of unlawful importation and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana.

Luis Vasquez let pickup trucks loaded with more than 1,200 pounds of marijuana cross through the Douglas Port of Entry without inspecting them, prosecutors say. He was arrested in 2011 and will be sentenced April 29. He faces a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison and/or a fine up to $5 million.

Just this week, The Associated Press reported that Border Patrol Agent Aaron Anaya, 25, admitted to smuggling marijuana while on duty along the Arizona-Mexico border and pleaded guilty to a felony drug-related gun charge.

The El Paso Times, meanwhile, reported former Agent Gabriel Burke, 43, pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe to help smuggle a person from Mexico. He will be sentenced June 24.

And a trial of Agent Luis Fonseca, who faces civil-rights violation charges for allegedly kneeing and choking a person who crossed the border illegally into California, started in San Diego this week.

Over the last 10 years, newspaper archives show at least a handful of agents in Arizona have been charged in federal court.

Nicholas Corbett is one of the last agents to stand trial. He is accused of shooting a 22-year-old from Mexico who entered the country illegally in 2007. Two trials in 2008 ended with jurors deadlocked.

Since the hiring surge of the 2000s, the largest law enforcement agency in the country has been battling corruption.

The agency's workforce jumped nearly 40 percent in about six years to 60,591 as of August 2012, with many of the new employees stationed in the Southwest.

The trial so far

During the first week of trial, Border Patrol agents admitted filing reports with false information and not notifying supervisors immediately of possible misconduct.

Dario Castillo and Ramon Zuniga are accused of forcing drug smugglers to eat marijuana, burning their clothes and telling them to flee without shoes or jackets on Nov. 12, 2008, when temperatures were about 40 degrees.

Castillo is also charged with tampering with a witness for allegedly calling another agent to tell him what they were going to say.

According to testimony in U.S. District Court, Border Patrol Agent Aaron Veckey was on a hill when he spotted a group of backpackers - smugglers carrying drugs on their backs - in a wash. Another agent on horse patrol, Jose Grajeda, called for assistance.

At least eight smugglers escaped but four were caught. What happens next is in dispute.

Grajeda says defendants Castillo and Zuniga demanded the smugglers take off their shoes and jackets.

They asked, "Do you like marijuana?" two of the smugglers testified. When the men said they did, one agent made them chew it, the smugglers testified.

But neither smuggler, Pedro Alcantar or his former son-in-law Francisco Bracamontes, got a clear view of the men giving orders because the agents ordered them not to look, the smugglers testified. Bracamontes only recalled the agent was dark-skinned and didn't have facial hair.

When the smugglers, all Mexican nationals, turned themselves in to Tohono O'odham tribal police, they initially said they were robbed by bandits. It was not until they were turned over to Border Patrol that they said they had been attacked by agents.

One of the defense's key pieces of evidence is an I-44 form, essentially a three-page accounting of seizures and apprehensions agents fill out. The report filed by Grajeda said he and Veckey followed foot tracks for about three miles and found 21 abandoned bundles of marijuana hidden in the brush.

"We searched the immediate area but were unable to locate any subjects," reads the report, signed by another agent not at the scene.

But Grajeda admitted that's not what happened and testified he took the information from a previous report.

Grajeda's partner, Veckey, said he proofread the report, but didn't read it as thoroughly as he should have to realize it was a false statement.

None of the agents on the scene reported the incident to their supervisors. None of them were disciplined for the alleged incident or for filing a report with false statements, they said in court.

The trial will continue this week.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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