SAN DIEGO (AP) — A former Border Patrol agent who frequently appeared on television news as an agency spokesman founded a smuggling ring that brought Mexicans and Brazilians to the United States illegally in Border Patrol vehicles, a federal prosecutor said Friday.
Raul Villarreal set up the criminal ring in April 2005 and made his older brother and fellow agent Fidel one of his first recruits, said Timothy Salel, an assistant U.S. attorney. The government has said it launched an investigation the next month after an informant tipped authorities.
"They decided to make the border work for them. Instead of defending the border, they decided to profit from it," Salel told jurors in his opening statement.
Defense attorneys countered that the government's case rests on unreliable witnesses. They detailed unsavory histories of informants and alleged accomplices who are expected to testify. Neither said if the brothers will take the stand.
Prosecutors say the brothers abruptly quit the Border Patrol in June 2006 after being tipped they were under investigation and fled to Mexico. Salel told jurors they would learn how the brothers found out but did not elaborate.
The brothers, who are in their early 40s, were arrested in October 2008 in Tijuana, Mexico, and extradited to face charges of human smuggling, bribery witness tampering in San Diego. They pleaded not guilty to all counts.
It is one of the highest-profile corruption cases to sting the Border Patrol since it went on a hiring spree during the last decade. Criminal indictments against employees of Customs and Border Protection — which oversees Border Patrol agents and other border security officials — have increased each of the last four years to 60 in fiscal 2011, according to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.
Prosecutors say the brothers brought hundreds of migrants to the United States illegally. They say a Tijuana police district commander ensured they got to the border safely, where the Villarreals chauffeured them in Border Patrol vehicles to another location in the San Diego area for other drivers to pick them up.
The Villarreals came to the United States from the central Mexican state of Jalisco in 1984, when the brothers were teenagers, according to court documents. Raul joined the Border Patrol in 1995 and Fidel was hired in 1998.
Raul worked as a public information officer in San Diego and once acted as a human smuggler in a public service announcement to warn Mexicans about the dangers of entering the United States illegally.
Salel promised jurors "a wide variety of evidence," including surveillance, phone records and testimony of customers, alleged accomplices and informants. Investigators put cameras on poles where migrants were dropped off, planted undercover recording devices, installed tracking instruments on Border Patrol vehicles and followed a smuggling load by airplane.
Defense attorneys dismissed the surveillance as inconclusive and attacked the credibility of witnesses.
"The lack of corroboration in this 18-month investigation is overwhelming," Zenia Gilg, Fidel's attorney, told jurors.
A woman who allegedly played a key role in the ring, Claudia Gonzalez, is "the root of all evil in this case," said David Nick, Raul's attorney. He said Gonzalez, who is expected to testify, may have been romantically involved with his client.
Prosecutors say the brothers shielded assets after quitting the Border Patrol. Raul transferred ownership of his family's National City home to his younger sister, and the brothers emptied their retirement accounts.
After settling in Tijuana, Raul had a falling out with an alleged accomplice, Hector Cabrera, upon learning that drivers Cabrera hired were cooperating with U.S. authorities, Salel told jurors. Raul once pointed a gun at Cabrera's head and ordered him out of his car. Cabrera fled in a high-speed chase through the Mexican border city.
Cabrera turned himself in to authorities, pleaded guilty to smuggling charges and is expected to testify against the Villareals.