updated 3/26/2007 9:07:46 PM ET 2007-03-27T01:07:46

An American border inspector was sentenced Monday to nearly six years in prison for taking cash and cars from smugglers, allowing them to shuttle illegal immigrants from Mexico into the United States.

Richard Elizalda, a 10-year veteran of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, worked at the world's busiest border crossing, the San Ysidro Port of Entry between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego. Investigators said he sent text messages directing smugglers to his inspection lane, then waved their vehicles through.

In return, he received as much as $1,000 for each immigrant, totaling $120,000 in cash starting in 2004.

"This is a terrible thing that you did," U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns said. "You're one of the gatekeepers of the safety and security of the United States and you abdicated that role."

Elizalda was arrested in June. Agents seized $36,170 in cash from Elizalda's home, along with a Lexus and a BMW given to him by the smuggling ringleaders.

He pleaded guilty and had already paid a $20,000 fine.

"I know that I did something wrong," he said, his voice breaking. "I let my family down and I let the United States down — the people of the United States — and I'm sorry."

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