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Former border agents arrested

The Villarreal brothers -- suspected of using their patrol vehicles to smuggle immigrants -- fled the U.S. in 2006.

October 21, 2008|Richard Marosi | Marosi is a Times staff writer.

SAN DIEGO — Two former U.S. Border Patrol agents who fled the country while under investigation for alleged immigrant smuggling have been arrested in Tijuana after a two-year manhunt, federal authorities announced Monday.

The suspects, brothers Raul and Fidel Villarreal, were being investigated on suspicion of smuggling illegal immigrants in their government vehicles when they abruptly resigned and disappeared in June 2006.

Their capture appears to have salvaged an investigation that federal law enforcement officials had believed to be foiled after the brothers were tipped off to the probe. The brothers had said they quit because of a family illness, but authorities suspected they had fled to Mexico to escape prosecution.

Acting on a tip, Mexican federal agents arrested the Villarreals on Saturday in a gated apartment complex near the U.S. Consulate. One of the brothers tried to run away but was caught by the agents, said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that headed the investigation.

"We've been tracking them since the time they fled the area," Mack said. "We were determined to get them and our perseverance paid off."

In an 18-count indictment unsealed Monday, the brothers and two other defendants were charged with smuggling conspiracy, money laundering and witness tampering. The Villarreals are also charged with receiving bribes. Over a two-year period, Raul Villarreal deposited $62,000 in cash into his bank account, according to the indictment. They will be held in Mexico City pending extradition, Mack said.

Raul Villarreal, 39, was the spokesman for the border patrol's San Diego sector and made frequent appearances on Spanish-language television newscasts.

He once played the role of a cold-hearted Mexican smuggler in a public service announcement meant to discourage immigrants from making dangerous border crossings.

Fidel Villarreal, 40, was a supervisory patrol agent who worked in the mountains east of San Diego.

According to the indictment, one of the co-conspirators, Armando Garcia, would lead the illegal immigrants across remote areas of the border on foot. One of the brothers would pick up the immigrants in his border patrol vehicle and take them farther into the country, according to the indictment.

The brothers smuggled people on multiple occasions in 2005 and 2006, according to the indictment.

They didn't run far from the home they shared with their parents in National City, a San Diego suburb. The apartment where they were captured is in an upscale area of Tijuana a quick car ride across the border.

Though they hadn't changed their appearances, two years in hiding had aged them considerably, Mack said.

"They looked kind of run-down, like they'd been on the run for a while," Mack said.

--

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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