A brazen conspiracy among U.S. law enforcement officers and soldiers to smuggle cocaine from Mexico was disclosed Thursday by the Justice Department, adding to concerns that public corruption north of the border was growing.
Wearing uniforms and even driving U.S. military vehicles, 16 suspects were caught in a sting run by an FBI-led task force. Eleven entered guilty pleas Thursday in Tucson; the other five have agreed to do so soon.
One federal inspector waved trucks he believed were carrying drugs across the border from Mexico to the U.S., according to the FBI. In another case, a group of the defendants used Army National Guard Humvees to transport 132 pounds of cocaine from a desert landing strip to a resort hotel in Phoenix, where they received cash from an undercover FBI agent.
Justice Department officials describe the case as a “widespread bribery and extortion conspiracy.” It is one of the largest public corruption cases along the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years.
The defendants “used their color of authority to prevent police stops, searches and seizures of narcotics as they drove the cocaine shipments on highways that passed through checkpoints,” the Justice Department said in a statement. The defendants pleaded guilty to transporting 1,232 pounds of cocaine and accepting $222,000 in cash for their activities.
The 16 defendants are or have been employed by a variety of agencies, including the U.S. Army, the Arizona Army National Guard, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the Arizona Department of Corrections, the local police department in Nogales, Ariz., and the immigration and naturalization service.
The three-year investigation, known as Operation Lively Green, was run by the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Tucson police department.
U.S. Atty. for Arizona Paul Charlton has been sounding alarms about the problem of public corruption for several years, and the latest arrests seem to confirm what he and others have been saying.
“It is a problem along the whole border,” Charlton said in an interview more than a year ago. “Along the port of entries, custom officials have been paid to assist with smuggling. Some of these people don’t have the ability to say no.”
In the last several years, almost every segment of the U.S. border with Mexico has had cases of law enforcement, customs and immigration officials, local police and U.S. military personnel prosecuted for bribery, drug trafficking and other federal crimes.
In the last three years, a border patrol agent and his wife were convicted of smuggling illegal immigrants in San Diego, an immigration officer pleaded guilty to charges of helping drug dealers smuggle narcotics in Texas and two Forest Service rangers were convicted of marijuana trafficking along the Arizona border.
As the convictions have mounted, concerns that well-financed drug and smuggling organizations in Mexico could corrupt the U.S. civil service and military along the border has been growing. The FBI set up a public corruption squad in its Phoenix office in 2003. Last year, federal authorities organized a joint meeting to step up efforts to combat corruption.
“Now more than ever, it is critically important that those on the front lines of our nation’s borders remain uncorrupted, said acting Assistant Atty. Gen. John C. Richter in a statement. “A corrupted border creates a grave threat to the national security of this country.”
One of the biggest emerging concerns is that a corrupted southern border could leave the nation more vulnerable to terrorists who could more easily pass through undetected and possibly join forces with drug interests.
“It is not just the threat of drugs, but the possibility that terrorists will slip through,” said Douglas C. McNabb, a criminal defense lawyer who has represented government officials charged with corruption. “We have a huge problem along the border.”
Rumors about Operation Lively Green have been circulating among law enforcement officials in Arizona for years, said one federal agent who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The big question in the field was why these guys weren’t being prosecuted,” he said. “Now, it looks like they were flipped.”
Justice Department spokesmen confirmed that the defendants had cooperated with the investigation, which is continuing. The defendants were appearing before Magistrate Judge Charles R. Pyle in Tucson. Each conspiracy charge carries a maximum five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Among those pleading guilty were John M. Castillo, 30, an INS inspector, who waved through a truck that he thought was carrying 88 pounds of cocaine on April 12, 2002. A few months later, he sold undercover FBI agents fraudulent immigration documents.
The FBI said all the defendants escorted at least two shipments of cocaine from locations in Arizona to Phoenix and Las Vegas, among other destinations.
Seven of the 17 defendants were in the Arizona Army National Guard, the FBI said. A spokeswoman for the Guard said the organization learned about the guilty pleas on Wednesday night and was trying to determine how they became involved in the conspiracy.
The state’s Guard assists federal law enforcement organizations through its Arizona National Guard Joint Counter Narco Terrorism Task Force, but none of the defendants were part of the task force, said Maj. Eileen Bienz, a Guard spokeswoman.
“None of them are assigned to border functions,” she added. Four of the defendants are still in the Guard.
An FBI spokeswoman said the Justice Department filed criminal informations on the defendants, which led to the guilty pleas. They also include: Robert L. Bakerx, 43; David M. Bustamante, 35; Joel P. Bustamante, 33; Jorge A. Calzadillas, 22; Demian F. Castillo, 33; Mark A. Fillman, 55; Jimmy L. Ford Jr., 29; Guillermo German, 36; Angel S. Hernandez, 31; Moises Hernandez, 21; Leslie B. Hidalgo, 24; John F. Manje, 36; Gladys C. Sanchez, 24; Angel M. Soto, 41; and Phillip Varona, 22.