Suspect Border Agents Resign, Vanish
Two U.S. Border Patrol agents under investigation for allegedly smuggling drugs and immigrants abruptly resigned and went into hiding this week after apparently being tipped off to the probe, according to federal law enforcement sources.
The agents -- brothers Raul and Fidel Villarreal -- were veteran officers who patrolled the border near San Diego and had been under suspicion since last year of smuggling illegal immigrants in their government vehicles, among other allegations, sources said.
They did not show up for work Monday and later notified supervisors that they had quit because of a family illness. But investigators suspect that someone tipped off the agents and that they may have left the country.
The disappearance threatens to derail the investigation, the latest in a string of unrelated corruption probes that have led to the indictments and convictions of several federal officers along the border.
“Somehow, somebody leaked it, and both resigned,” said a source close to the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. “They left their badges and government credentials at their father’s house.... Now they’re in the
Damon Foreman, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in San Diego, confirmed that the agents had been under investigation for suspected smuggling activity and had submitted their resignations.
Raul Villarreal, 36, was the face of the Border Patrol in San Diego a few years ago when he was a spokesman and was interviewed regularly by Spanish-language media. Fidel, 32, worked in the mountains east of San Diego.
At the modest home the men shared with their parents in National City, a woman identifying herself as their mother said her sons still lived with her. She said she didn’t know when they would return. They did not respond to a request for comment made through the woman.
The investigation, which sources said grew out of information gleaned from captured illegal migrants, is being handled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of several agencies that make up the Border Corruption Task Force. Officials at customs enforcement declined to comment.
The agents were suspected of working with Mexico-based criminal networks to smuggle Mexicans and Brazilians into the country, sources said. The illegal immigrants would cross the border on their own and then be picked up by one of the brothers while on patrol. The migrants then would be delivered to another driver for the organization, sources said.
The status of the investigation is unclear. Such probes often require extensive and delicate evidence gathering, including wiretaps and statements from immigrants, and it is unknown whether authorities were ready to file charges.
“The case isn’t dead; it just comes to a screeching halt because the two targets have disappeared. The whole case isn’t gone, but you can’t move forward anymore,” said one source.
Authorities also are investigating the apparent leak of the information, sources said. Officials at multiple federal agencies, including the Border Patrol, had been briefed on the probe. In the past, informants have been known to tip off targets.
The investigation comes amid a recent spate of corruption cases involving Border Patrol agents and customs officers. Authorities say smuggling rings, their traditional trafficking routes blocked by increased enforcement, are enlisting corrupt agents to help them get their loads through.
Last month, two customs officers at the Otay Mesa and San Ysidro ports of entry were charged with waving through cars loaded with illegal immigrants in exchange for cash.
In a case similar to the investigation of the Villarreal brothers, two supervisory Border Patrol agents were charged earlier this year with smuggling migrants in their government vehicles for a Mexican trafficking organization based in Mexicali.
In a case last year, former Border Patrol Agent Oscar Antonio Ortiz admitted as part of a plea agreement that he had conspired to smuggle 100 illegal immigrants into the country. Ortiz himself was an illegal immigrant, having used a false birth certificate to pass himself off as a U.S. citizen, authorities said.