When proponents of tougher enforcement talk about people coming to the U.S. “the right way,” they often describe immigrants like Mambasse Patara.
The 53-year-old Fontana resident entered the U.S. legally from Togo in 1999, then earned his citizenship by fighting in the Iraq war as a Marine. He has spent the last 12 years as a patrolman and traffic investigator for the Los Angeles Police Department.
But after nearly two decades of lawful contacts with immigration authorities, Patara found himself at odds with the U.S. Border Patrol last year when he was stopped at a checkpoint in Pine Valley, some 50 miles east of San Diego.
Patara said he had no idea the two men in his car — one a neighborhood handyman he’d known for years — were in the country without legal authorization.
As he was being arrested, Patara said, he hoped his background would lead authorities to realize he’d been an unwitting accomplice.
Instead, federal prosecutors spent the next year trying to put Patara in prison, a move some legal experts said reflected the Trump administration’s aggressive approach to immigration-related crimes.
An analysis of federal court records by ProPublica and The Times found the number of human smuggling cases prosecuted along the border increased 25% during President Trump’s first two years in office, up from 4,319 in 2015 and 2016 to 5,420 in 2017 and 2018. The number of cases filed in California nearly doubled in that time.
A jury acquitted Patara of two counts of human smuggling in February. However, he remains on administrative leave from the LAPD. The agency declined to comment, pending an internal investigation.
The experience, Patara said, has shaken his faith in the legal system — leaving him unsure if he can return to work as a police officer.
“I worked my way up in this country from scraps. … I did not get in line or ask for anything,” Patara said. “My own people ... law enforcement, the ones that are supposed to watch my back … the ones that I could die for every day, are the ones that put me in a hole?”
There was little reason to question the validity of Patara’s arrest at a Border Patrol checkpoint along Interstate 8 in Imperial County in April 2018. The two men in his car — German Ramirez-Gonzalez and Fermin Lopez — were Mexican citizens who each had contact with immigration authorities more than a dozen times, court records show.
The question of whether Patara knew the men were in the country illegally, or if he’d plotted to try to get them past the checkpoint, soon became central to the case. Prosecutors contended Patara intentionally drove to El Centro to help shepherd the men through an interior checkpoint, and argued that he flashed his LAPD credentials hoping to dissuade agents from asking too many questions.
Patara said he showed his police credentials only in case the agents were concerned that he was carrying a firearm. He and his attorney said Ramirez-Gonzalez and Lopez had tricked him.
On the day he was arrested, Patara said, he and his wife, Minerva Hernandez, had traveled from Fontana to El Centro to meet Ramirez-Gonzalez and his wife, Mary Aragon.
The two groups connected, but the women decided to head back to Fontana in Aragon’s car after Patara and his wife got into an argument. The men continued on to the Golden Acorn casino, which prosecutors described in court documents as a popular hub for human smuggling.
Prosecutors said Ramirez-Gonzalez and Lopez had entered the country illegally on foot from Tecate days earlier. Patara swore he knew nothing about their immigration status and simply had agreed to drive them back to Fontana.
During the same trial at which Patara was acquitted, Aragon was convicted of trying to smuggle her husband and Lopez into the country. Ramirez-Gonzalez also was convicted of trying to smuggle Lopez, who has since been returned to Mexico.
Court records about their sentencing were not available, and a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego declined to provide additional details.
It was unclear if Ramirez-Gonzalez faced deportation. Aragon is a U.S. citizen, according to court records. A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said she could not comment.
Patara said he received no payment from either man and had no motive to help them get past the checkpoint. Although he had known Ramirez-Gonzalez for roughly five years, he had never thought to ask about his immigration status.
Patara met Lopez for the first time that day, when Ramirez-Gonzalez introduced the man as his uncle. The two are not related, records show. After the arrest, Lopez said he did not know who Patara was, but claimed Ramirez-Gonzalez had told him the man could drive them past a checkpoint, according to court records.
Evidence presented at Patara’s trial did little to suggest he had conspired to violate immigration law.
Phone records show he had barely spoken to Ramirez-Gonzalez and Aragon in the months before the incident. In a recorded jailhouse phone call, Ramirez-Gonzalez and Aragon said Patara had known nothing about his passengers’ immigration status before being stopped by Border Patrol, according to court transcripts.
A judge did not allow evidence from that call to be presented at trial, citing it as hearsay.
Patara’s attorney, Marc Carlos, said prosecutors should have known his client had too much to lose to engage in smuggling. Patara had entered the U.S. on a visa and, after gaining citizenship, spent two years and thousands of dollars helping his wife legally emigrate from Mexico.
“I think it was an enormous waste of government resources to prosecute a man with no motive to engage in any sort of criminal activity,” Carlos said.
Border Patrol officials scoffed at any suggestion that Patara’s background should have made them question whether the case should have been presented to prosecutors.
“Mr. [Patara’s] position as a police officer does not change the fact that he was transporting two illegal aliens,” said Ralph DeSio, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in San Diego.
Whitney Z. Bernstein, a former federal public defender in San Diego who has litigated smuggling cases, said she was relieved to see prosecutors did not give Patara a pass because he is a police officer. But the fact that prosecutors charged him in spite of questions about his knowledge of the men’s immigration status illustrates the government’s overly aggressive stance on border prosecutions.
“This administration wants to prosecute border crimes, and that is what they are blindly prosecuting, seemingly without regard to the strength of their case,” she said.
Several other immigration attorneys and federal public defenders echoed Bernstein’s sentiments in interviews, but declined to be identified for fear it might negatively impact future cases they litigate against federal prosecutors in San Diego.
Carlos described Patara as “the immigrant dream” in his opening statement at trial, a label his client seems to take to heart.
Patara said he lived in several countries in Europe and found work as an electrician before moving to California. After working as a bus driver in Los Angeles, Patara enlisted in the Marines when a recruiter explained military service could help him earn citizenship.
He served from 2003 to 2007, deploying to Iraq in 2006, according to Yvonne Carlock, a spokeswoman for the Marine Corps. Patara attained the rank of sergeant and received medals for good conduct and humanitarian service before he was discharged, Carlock said.
In 2007, Patara joined the LAPD, where he has served as a patrol officer for 12 years, according to a department spokeswoman.
During the trial, prosecutors repeatedly questioned the circumstances that brought Patara to the checkpoint.
On the day of the arrest, Patara said in a recent interview, he had been holed up at home after being injured in an on-duty car crash. So when Ramirez-Gonzalez and Aragon invited the officer and his wife to meet at a San Diego casino, he jumped at the chance.
But as soon as Patara and his wife got in their car, things got complicated. Where Patara saw confusion, however, prosecutors saw conspiracy.
The address where Ramirez-Gonzalez asked Patara to meet was not in San Diego, but 50 miles east in El Centro. Patara testified he and his wife did not realize how far they would be driving until they had been on the road for an hour. Too far to turn back, Patara says.
Once they connected with Ramirez-Gonzalez and Aragon, they were introduced to Lopez.
Patara said he agreed to go to the Golden Acorn casino in Campo. His wife, however, was angry and decided to drive home with Aragon. The three men spent less than 30 minutes at the casino before heading back to Fontana. They would be detained at the checkpoint within the hour.
Prosecutors cited what they said were the oddities of Patara’s travel. Asst. U.S. Atty. Shauna Prewitt asked why the men did not meet at a casino closer to Fontana, and why they spent so little time at the Golden Acorn after such an arduous journey.
While a review of phone records presented at trial showed minimal contact between Patara and the other defendants in the months before the arrest, prosecutors zeroed in on texts and phone calls shortly before he arrived at the checkpoint.
“Be careful, the Border Patrol just passed,” read a text from Patara’s wife. Patara testified that he never saw the message, but prosecutors insisted it signified a warning. Phone records also showed Patara had read the message.
While inside the casino, Ramirez-Gonzalez received two phone calls from Aragon, prosecutors said — one as she approached the I-8 checkpoint, and a second after she and Hernandez were waved through. At one point, security camera footage from inside the casino showed Ramirez-Gonzalez hand the phone to Patara.
Prosecutors could not say with certainty what the conversation entailed, but Prewitt told jurors to use “common sense” to fill in the blanks.
“They’re talking about the checkpoint,” Prewitt said. “‘It’s open, just like it has been the whole time we’ve been in El Centro, but the good news is they’re waving people through.’”
Carlos, however, argued that all prosecutors had done was prove the other defendants conspired to use Patara to get past the checkpoint. At no time, Carlos said, did prosecutors offer a motive for Patara to engage in human smuggling or prove he knew the other men were not in the country legally.
If Patara was guilty of anything, Carlos said, it was naivete.
“I went to war. I put my life in danger to earn my citizenship. I worked hard to earn what I have,” Patara testified at trial. “Why would I sacrifice my life to go do something like this?”
Despite the acquittal, Patara remains in debt after spending tens of thousands of dollars on his defense; the case has caused him to question if he can return to work in law enforcement, feeling betrayed by the profession he loved, unsure how other officers might view him.