TUCSON — When the FBI began a massive drug sting targeting American military personnel and public employees near the Mexico-Arizona border, Mark A. Fillman was among the first to bite.
An Arizona Army National Guardsman for 32 years, Fillman bluntly told undercover agents that he wanted to become a narcotics trafficker. And on Jan. 21, 2002, he transported 11.8 kilograms of cocaine from Nogales to Tucson, wearing his uniform and using an Army vehicle. In return, he picked up $4,500.
Within a few weeks, the sting mushroomed, as participants began recruiting others into the operation for cash bribes. Damien F. Castillo, another guardsman, joined four others on Feb. 27, 2002, to transport 30 kilograms of cocaine from Tucson to a Las Vegas casino.
Two months later, Castillo would recruit his brother, John M. Castillo, an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The brother allegedly waved through trucks he believed were carrying cocaine at the border checkpoint at Mariposa, Ariz., in return for the largest payoff disclosed -- $32,000.
From January 2002 to March 2004, the FBI operated 20 separate drug runs, in which participants transported cocaine from various points in Arizona. In some cases, the drugs went from the border city of Nogales to Phoenix and in other cases from Tucson to Las Vegas.
So far, 22 guardsmen, prison guards, immigration agents and Air Force personnel have been charged or have entered guilty pleas in U.S. District Court in Tucson, including Fillman and the Castillo brothers.
The task force conducted eight drug runs in 2002, 10 in 2003 and at least two in 2004.
Justice Department officials are disclosing little about the big picture of how the sting operated, but an examination of court records tells at least some of the story. It began small and grew explosively, as public employees rushed to get in on what they thought was a narcotics smuggling ring. More than 560 kilograms of cocaine were transported and more than $250,000 in bribes were paid.
It quickly became one of the largest investigations into public sector corruption on the north side of the U.S.-Mexico border, a reflection of the growing apprehension about the power of drug cartels.
"It is a greater concern than at any time," said Noel L. Hillman, chief of the Justice Department's public integrity section that ran the sting.
In most cases, the FBI stings targeted one group at a time, so prison guards jointly conducted one run and then guardsmen another and Air Force personnel another. It effectively kept the operations compartmentalized, so that only those inside the sting knew what was going on.
The largest group of defendants is from the Army National Guard, which was assigned to help support border security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The FBI launched its investigation in early 2002 when it obtained information that some members of the Guard were susceptible to corruption, though it did not have direct evidence that soldiers were engaged in drug trafficking.
In at least one case, a guardsman was caught moving drugs by the FBI sting and separately. Robert Bakerx, a sergeant in the Guard, was caught up in FBI drug stings on Aug. 22, 2002, and Oct. 16, 2002. Then in July 2003, he was arrested on charges of transporting 168 pounds of marijuana from Mexico, unrelated to the FBI sting. He was discharged from the Guard in July 2004
Bakerx, 43, was on probation for the marijuana conviction when he pleaded guilty to the FBI charges on May 12. On his way into federal court that day, when he encountered a swarm of news media, he spat at Fox News television reporter Natalie Tejeda. Later that day, he was released on his own recognizance, according to the U.S. Marshall's office. Contacted at his home, Bakerx declined to comment.
The undercover operations ended with a run on May 20, 2004, in which airman Jareese V. Jones from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and two Air Force sergeants, so far not charged, are alleged to have transported 15 kilograms of cocaine, according to a summary of the charging documents released by the Air Force.
A Tucson lawyer who represents another defendant said the individuals who had been charged or had pleaded guilty were not the ringleaders.
"These are the bottom tier," said Ralph Ellinwood, who represents Guillermo German, an Arizona state prison guard who admitted taking $13,500 in bribes. "It is what happens with all stings, people who are living close to the line are offered a fair amount of money and they bite."
By some estimates, the prosecutions could ultimately exceed four dozen and take down some bigger players. Hillman declined to speculate on such matters, but said: "You are seeing only one part of a multi-headed beast. There will be many more prosecutions."