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Former Border Patrol agents sentenced to 30 years in immigrant smuggling case

SAN DIEGO -- A federal judge on Friday sentenced two former Border Patrol agents to at least 30 years in prison for running a ring that smuggled more than 500 illegal immigrants into the United States.

U.S. District Court Judge John Houston sentenced Raul Villarreal to 35 years in prison for being the ring leader. His brother, Fidel Villarreal, was sentenced to 30 years for managing the operation.

The sentences are among the longest given to border law enforcement officials.

Houston said he gave the severe sentences to deter other agents who have been entrusted by the American people to protect the border. The judge called their smuggling operation "disgusting" and a threat to national security.

Prosecutors said Raul Villarreal — who made television appearances as an agency spokesman and once played the role of a smuggler in a public service ad — recruited his brother to his ring. The brothers worked in cahoots with a corrupt Tijuana police officer and a network of others who arranged the pickups and drop-offs.

The agents would abandon their job duties manning the border to transport the migrants in Border Patrol vehicles — sometimes several times a day, federal officials said. Prosecutors said they smuggled in as many as 1,000 Mexicans and Brazilians; the judge put the figure at more than 500.

The brothers charged each immigrant about $10,000, and they made more than $700,000, the judge said.

"This long-term guaranteed method of bringing aliens into the United States was disgusting, pervasive and impacted significantly the national interest," Houston told the court before handing down their sentences.

The brothers did not show any emotion when the sentences were announced.

The federal probe began in May 2005 when an informant tipped off the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Investigators installed cameras in areas where migrants were dropped off, planted recording devices and placed tracking instruments on Border Patrol vehicles. They also trailed the ring's smuggling operations by airplane.

Prosecutors said when the brothers learned they were being investigated in June 2006, they quit their jobs and fled to Mexico.

Two years later, the brothers were arrested there and extradited to the U.S. where they were charged with human smuggling, witness tampering and bribery.

Raul Villarreal's attorney, David Nick, had argued the prosecution's witnesses were not credible and surveillance yielded no evidence of wrongdoing by his client.

Fidel's attorney, Zenia Gilg, echoed that argument, saying the prosecution's case rested largely on two alleged accomplices who were promised leniency for testifying and "inconsistent statements" from migrants.

The Border Patrol has suffered a string of such embarrassments since doubling its size in less than a decade, including the case of an agent who pleaded guilty in April to smuggling marijuana while on duty along the Arizona-Mexico border.

But prosecutors and Judge Houston said the Villarreal case stands out as being among the worst corruption cases.

"They used their positions as Border Patrol agents to line their pockets," Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Salel said, adding later: "Unlike other corruption cases where agents have been led astray to join an organization, these agents created the organization. They called the shots. They were the ring leaders."