A former Border Patrol agent in Nogales said his gambling habit forced him into a drug-smuggling conspiracy.

Alex Peña, 37, was sentenced Monday to 20 months in federal prison for his role in the conspiracy. While in uniform, Peña stole a Border Patrol truck in the middle of the night in August 2016 and drove it to a remote area south of Patagonia, where he admitted he intended to help smuggle a load of marijuana, according to a plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson.

Peña had a “significant gambling problem” which, combined with a 25 percent reduction in pay following a funding cut to the agency, “caused a financial struggle” and he “could not see an exit,” defense lawyer Christopher Scileppi wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

“This was not to gain more, but because of desperate and dire financial needs,” Scileppi told Judge Cindy K. Jorgenson at a sentencing hearing Monday.

Jorgenson prohibited Peña from entering a casino or any other gambling establishment during the three years he will spend on supervised release after serving his prison sentence.

Peña joined the Border Patrol in November 2008 and resigned March 27, 2017, the same day he was placed on unpaid, indefinite suspension and five days after he was indicted by a federal grand jury, according to the agency’s Tucson Sector.

When it came to sentencing Peña, “it does make a difference” that he was an agent, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wallace Kleindienst told Jorgenson.

“This court has to treat him differently and punish him most severely,” Kleindienst said.

On the night of the attempted smuggling incident, while off duty, Peña went back to the Nogales Border Patrol station at 1 a.m. where he took a Border Patrol vehicle without permission. Peña then drove to a remote location south of Patagonia to meet the smugglers, according to the plea agreement.

The plan started to unravel when a sensor was tripped in hills about 8 miles north of the border where Sonoita station Border Patrol agents worked, as the Arizona Daily Star reported March 2.

When a Sonoita agent went to investigate the tripped sensor, Peña apologized and said he was looking for a place to sleep for a few hours before he and other Nogales agents installed a surveillance device on Red Mountain, according to a court affidavit.

After Peña drove away, the Sonoita agent followed tire tracks in the mud for a quarter-mile and found an area of trampled grass where it appeared a truck had backed up.

Agents found footprints of several people, greasy hamburger wrappers, soda cans and a camouflage canteen, all of which were indicators of “load-out” sites where drug smugglers wait to transfer loads to drivers, according to the affidavit. The footprints led agents south toward Mexico.

The subsequent investigation showed Peña drove the agency truck through the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 19, while briefly turning on his emergency lights to be waved through, and sent text messages to a phone linked to a 2013 Drug Enforcement Administration investigation, according to the affidavit.

Peña’s bank records showed he regularly deposited large amounts of cash starting in 2013, including $30,000 deposited in 2016 that was not from his salary, according to the affidavit.

“He was a public servant who became corrupt,” Kleindienst wrote in a sentencing memorandum, adding “public corruption is a cancer that eats away at the fabric of our nation.”

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Probation for punching handcuffed man

In a separate case, a former Border Patrol agent in Nogales was sentenced on June 18 to five years probation for repeatedly punching a suspected illegal border crosser who was handcuffed and lying face-down on the ground.

Roy Ammerman, 34, previously pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Tucson to a misdemeanor charge of deprivation of rights under color of law.

In July 2014, an agent called for help on his radio after injuring himself while trying to arrest a suspected border crosser. Ammerman responded and arrived to the scene. He believed the agent had been injured by the man in custody and that additional force was necessary to subdue him, defense attorney Michael Bloom wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Ammerman then struck the victim on the right side of his head and face at least six times with a closed fist. Other agents intervened. Ammerman then struck the victim on his left side, and over a minute later struck him again on the left side with a closed fist, as the Arizona Daily Star reported Feb. 23.

Ammerman had multiple chances to stop and assess the situation to take appropriate action, but instead he continued to punch the victim, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Hansen wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Ammerman worked for the agency for over seven years before the incident, Bloom wrote. Upon sentencing, Ammerman was forced to immediately resign from his position as an agent, court records show. He also must pay a $1,500 fine and $575 in restitution to the victim.

Pablo Lopez is a journalism student at the University of Arizona and an apprentice at the Arizona Daily Star. Contact him at metro@tucson.com.