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A customs officer in Nogales has pleaded guilty to stealing government-owned credit cards and using them to gas up his Mercedes-Benz.

Juan Fernando Barajas, who resigned from the agency last year, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of theft of government property, according to a plea agreement filed March 7 in U.S. District Court in Tucson.

Barajas faces five years on probation and a $10,000 fine. He also agreed to pay $2,386 in restitution to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Barajas stole 13 government fleet credit cards at the Nogales port of entry from April 2016 to November 2016 and used them to fuel his personal vehicles, according to the plea agreement.

He hid the theft by stealing one card at a time. When a card was discovered missing and CBP canceled it, he would take the canceled card back to the port of entry and switch it out for another one, according to the plea agreement.

After administrators at the port of entry discovered the fraud, investigators retrieved video from gas stations and matched the vehicles being fueled to Barajas’ 2012 Mercedes-Benz SUV and Ford F-150 pickup truck, according to a December 2016 criminal complaint filed by an officer with CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

Law enforcement officers had Barajas under surveillance in September 2016 and filmed him fueling his Mercedes-Benz. They retrieved the receipt and it showed a CBP fleet fuel credit card was used to buy the gas, according to the complaint.

Barajas started working for CBP in January 2003 and resigned Oct. 27, 2017, CBP’s public affairs office said.

He was arrested Dec. 1, 2016, by the Office of Professional Responsibility in connection with suspicious government credit card activity and indicted by a federal grand jury a week later.

Barajas is “very remorseful,” said defense attorney Matt McGuire.

McGuire said Barajas, who previously worked for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, was an “excellent law enforcement officer” who made a mistake when he ran into unexpected financial trouble.

Integrity is central to maintaining the public’s trust, CBP’s public affairs office said in a statement.

“Those who willfully violate that trust have no place in our organization,” the statement said.

Douglas customs officer indicted

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In a separate case, a federal grand jury indicted a customs officer in Douglas, accusing him of making false statements on a CBP background check and a passport application.

Marco Antonio De la Garza Jr., 37, is accused of falsely claiming he was a U.S. citizen born in Brownsville, Texas, according to the indictment filed March 7 in U.S. District Court in Tucson.

Investigators found the Texas birth certificate he submitted was false, according to a Feb. 22 criminal complaint filed by a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.

The midwife who attested to De la Garza’s birth in Texas was convicted for conspiracy to make false statements on birth certificates in 1984, according to the complaint.

Mexican birth records showed De la Garza was born in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville, in October 1980. Mexican school records showed he was registered using the Mexican birth record and date of birth.

Garza submitted the questionnaire for his five-year background-check update in October 2016. He submitted the passport application at Cochise County Superior Court in October 2017.

De la Garza participated in an interview at a passport center in Tucson on Feb. 21. During the interview, he admitted his parents told him when he was 17 years old and living in Mexico that he was a Mexican citizen.

Despite knowing he was a Mexican citizen, De la Garza used the false Texas birth certificate to enter the United States and claim U.S. citizenship, according to the complaint.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar