SAN DIEGO — Two supervisory U.S. Border Patrol agents who helped establish a successful cross-border anti-smuggling program have been charged with smuggling migrants for a Mexican trafficking organization.
The agents, both stationed in the Imperial Valley, released apprehended illegal immigrants in exchange for cash, pulling in about $300,000, according to a federal indictment unsealed Thursday.
The men, Mario Alvarez, 44, and Samuel McClaren, 43, also released captured members of a Mexican smuggling ring, dropping one off at a Wal-Mart parking lot in Calexico for $6,000, prosecutors allege.
Alvarez and McClaren, who were arrested Thursday, face potential 15-year prison terms. The eight-count indictment includes conspiracy, immigrant smuggling and bribery charges.
"The agents arrested today, who are supposed to represent the very best, epitomize the very worst," said Daniel R. Dzwilewski, special agent in charge at the FBI's San Diego office.
Authorities said the investigation is continuing. The two agents are scheduled to be arraigned today in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
Alvarez and McClaren helped establish the much-heralded Guide Identification Prosecution Program, now known as Operation Against Smugglers and Traffickers Initiative on Safety and Security.
Under the program, smugglers who are not going to be prosecuted in the United States are handed over to Mexican authorities for prosecution. Many smugglers are not charged in the United States because federal authorities lack the resources and detention space.
The pilot program administered by Alvarez and McClaren was so successful that the two agents helped expand it across the Southwest border by training other Border Patrol agents.
Alvarez worked with the Mexican liaison unit in the Border Patrol's El Centro sector from November 2002 through last year, and McClaren worked with the unit from July 2003 through last year. El Centro is about 90 miles east of San Diego and about eight miles north of the border.
In an interview two years ago, Alvarez and McClaren expressed pride in the program's success, saying they had helped lock up dozens of smugglers who endangered the lives of migrants by taking them along perilous desert and mountain routes.
"The main purpose of the program is to save lives," McClaren said at the time.
Attorneys for Alvarez and McClaren were not available for comment.
News of their arrest shocked Border Patrol agents, who described the pair as hardworking, competent officers well-known at the agency's stations across the country.
"They were given a lot of credit for the fact that" their program worked, said one agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
Alvarez and McClaren built cases against smugglers, usually foot guides called coyotes, by taking statements from migrants. Those statements were turned over to Mexican authorities to get arrest warrants from judges. Mexican prosecutors then re-interviewed the migrants and submitted the statements, which were often sufficient to win convictions.
Typically summoned to help by other agents after large apprehensions, McClaren and Alvarez had wide leeway in the handling of the migrants and suspected smugglers.
Federal authorities said they took advantage of their trusted position to earn big profits, some of which they put directly into their personal bank accounts. Alvarez deposited $82,000; McClaren, $85,900.
The pair allegedly had ties to the Javier Sanchez-Perfino smuggling organization, meeting with members in person or conferring with them by cellphone.
The two men allegedly delivered or arranged to deliver apprehended immigrants to the organization at locations, including a stash house, near El Centro and Calexico. The organization would then transport the migrants to Los Angeles.
Two members of the organization are listed as alleged co-conspirators but are not charged in the indictment.
The agents are accused of driving two members of the Javier Sanchez-Perfino organization into the United States in their government vehicle in September 2004 for a $4,000 payoff.
In October 2005, the agents allegedly falsified documents to say they had returned a smuggler to Mexico, when they had actually picked him up at an immigration processing center in El Centro and dropped him off at the Wal-Mart parking lot, the indictment says.
The arrests are the latest involving agents from the El Centro Border Patrol sector, which stretches from the Imperial Valley to the Arizona border. An agent pleaded guilty last year to smuggling several hundred pounds of marijuana in a Border Patrol vehicle. Two other agents were caught in May by Mexican authorities when they allegedly tried to smuggle 1,300 rounds of ammunition into Mexicali.
Thursday's arrests are not "indicative of the Department of Homeland Security or the hard-working, professional and scrupulous men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol," said Carl L. McClafferty, chief patrol agent in the El Centro sector.
Salvador Zamora, a Border Patrol spokesman in Washington, said the cross-border anti-smuggling program would not be harmed by the allegations, adding that it has aided both U.S. and Mexican authorities.
But some agents expressed concern that the corruption charges could hurt efforts to get the Mexican government to devote more resources, including federal prosecutors, to the program.
"The Mexicans are always accused of being corrupt, but this doesn't make us look good," said one agent. "When things like this happen, it kind of sets you back. It does strain things."