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Ex-Border Agent Gets Five Years in Migrant Smuggling

Himself an illegal immigrant, he used his government vehicle to help at least 100 crossers.

July 29, 2006|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A former U.S. Border Patrol agent was sentenced Friday to five years in prison for conspiring to smuggle at least 100 illegal immigrants in his government vehicle.

Oscar Antonio Ortiz, 29, was himself an illegal immigrant who used a false birth certificate to get a job patrolling the rugged mountains east of San Diego.

U.S. District Judge John A. Houston rejected prosecutors' recommended sentence of three years in imposing the stiffer term.

Ortiz, he said, abused his trusted role as a "gatekeeper" into the country.

"You violated the sacred trust of your comrades," the judge said. "As a link in the chain, they depended on you."

Ortiz carried out his smuggling with the help of another agent, Eric Balderas, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges earlier this year and is awaiting sentencing.

The agents carefully coordinated their smuggling activity, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Alana M. Wong. While one kept watch atop a hill, the other would pick up the migrants, who had already crossed the border, she said.

The migrants would be taken to a designated area where drivers working for a human smuggling organization would pick them up. The agents would earn about $300 per migrant, Wong said.

Ortiz's case prompted a review of the backgrounds of more than 40,000 border patrol agents and customs officers.

He was hired at the agency shortly after he was detained in 2001 on suspicion of trying to smuggle two illegal immigrants into the United States in his vehicle.

No charges were filed in the case, and Border Patrol officials said they were unaware of the incident when Ortiz was hired by the agency.

Ortiz, who was born in Mexico, grew up in the San Diego area and served in the U.S. Navy. He received several awards during his military service, including one for good conduct, said his attorney, Stephen White.

Ortiz's mother obtained the fake birth certificate when he was 3, and Ortiz grew up thinking he was a U.S. citizen until he turned 18, White said.

Prosecutors said his actions were inexcusable.

"Ortiz lied his way into the Border Patrol and thought he had free rein once he was inside the agency. He was wrong," Carol C. Lam, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, said in a prepared statement.

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