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Border agent accused of taking bribes

/ Source: The Associated Press

A customs officer was arrested on charges of taking money in exchange for waving illegal immigrants through border crossings.

In an indictment unsealed by federal prosecutors Thursday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Richard Elizalda is accused of accepting cash and a luxury car from smugglers driving carloads of illegal immigrants from Tijuana, Mexico, into the U.S. through the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego.

Elizalda, a 10-year veteran of the border agency, is accused of conspiring to allow at least nine illegal immigrants driven by smugglers through his inspection lane without being stopped.

Seven people listed in the indictment are accused of operating a smuggling ring. Members of the group are also suspected of trafficking about 230 pounds of marijuana across the border.

Investigators said they traced more than 20 illegal immigrants who were spirited across the border by the group.

The arrest came after a two-year investigation by the Border Corruption Task Force, a multi-agency team that pursues claims against officers at border crossings in California. Investigators said that they had placed wiretaps on Elizalda's phones after receiving tips that he was involved in suspicious activities.

Elizalda was arrested in an early morning raid on his home in Chula Vista. Agents seized cash and two luxury cars — a 2000 Lexus and a 2005 BMW.

Elizalda's arrest came a day after another border officer, Michael Anthony Gilliland, was arraigned on similar charges of accepting more than $500,000 in bribes from smugglers driving illegal immigrants through the border crossing at Otay Mesa, several miles east of San Ysidro. Investigators said Thursday that they believe the two cases are unrelated.

"In both cases the inspectors betrayed the trust of their countrymen by accepting bribes from illegal alien smuggling organizations," said FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Stewart Roberts.

Attempts to contact Elizalda's home Thursday were unsuccessful and the name of his lawyer was not known. Elizalda remained in custody and was expected to be arraigned Friday.