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Border Patrol agent is charged with harboring illegal immigrants

The illegal immigrant father of Agent Marcos Gerardo Manzano Jr. allegedly lived in the agent's San Diego home. And this week, authorities found an illegal immigrant, methamphetamine and other drug paraphernalia in a small hidden room of the house.

January 14, 2011|By Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times
  • FBI agents prepare to search the home of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Marcos Gerardo Manzano Jr.
FBI agents prepare to search the home of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Marcos… (John Gibbins / Associated…)

Reporting from San Diego — U.S. Border Patrol Agent Marcos Gerardo Manzano Jr. zipped around the hills along the San Diego-Tijuana border pursuing illegal immigrants every day. But his hunt didn't extend, authorities allege, to the illegal immigrant living in his own home — his father.

Manzano's father, Marcos Gerardo Manzano Sr., was known as a Mr. Fix-it in his working-class San Diego neighborhood, who did painting and landscaping jobs for a few bucks. But authorities say Manzano Sr., 46, is a twice-deported illegal immigrant with a criminal record who may have been dealing drugs.

Three days after teams of heavily armed federal agents raided the home, the elder Manzano remains a fugitive. His son was charged with harboring illegal immigrants and lying to federal agents. Authorities and neighbors are trying to sort out if his alleged actions were an understandable though still illegal act of mercy, or part of a larger criminal enterprise.

The search of the house offered mysterious clues: Under a patio in the backyard, agents found a small room where an illegal immigrant was hiding. In the house, they also found 61 grams of methamphetamine along with drug paraphernalia and narcotics packaging material.

Manzano, 26, a three-year veteran of the agency who was arrested at work Monday night, made his initial court appearance Wednesday. He faces up to 10 years in prison and may lose his house to a criminal forfeiture.

Some neighbors expressed shock and sympathy for the young Manzano. To them, he was the hard-working young man who rose early every day to go to work in his neatly pressed green uniform. He faced an impossible quandary, some say, if his father came to him seeking shelter.

"What could he do? He's family," said neighbor Angelica Garcia. "It's very sad what happened."

But authorities said Manzano, as a federal officer, should have known better than to put himself in the position of housing an illegal immigrant, even if he was a family member. "His loyalty to his father was stronger than the loyalty to the Border Patrol, and that's the sad reality of it," said one federal law enforcement officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because agents are not authorized to speak with the media.

Manzano became a U.S. Border Patrol agent in 2007 and was assigned to patrol along the border fence near Imperial Beach. Within two years, authorities allege, he was allowing his father to live in his cluttered home, in a neighborhood a few blocks from the Chula Vista border patrol station.

Manzano Sr. had been arrested in 2008 for possession of marijuana for sale and was deported the next year. He had also been deported in 2007. Authorities, who had the home under surveillance since September 2009, suspect the house was a center for drug distribution and possibly immigrant smuggling.

Upon discovering the stash of drugs in the house, authorities initially thought the underground room housed a drug lab, according to the federal agent. A hazardous materials team was summoned to the scene to clear the area, but no chemicals were found. Inside the 8-by-8-foot room, accessible by a ladder, authorities found an illegal immigrant hiding under a table. The immigrant, Jose Alfredo Garrido Morena, 26, had been previously deported.

In the mostly Latino neighborhood where most people speak Spanish, the immigration status of the elder Manzano wasn't an issue. Neighbor Rick Bush, 56, said the father helped him build a tree house in his backyard for $100, and said he seemed like "good people."

It's understandable that the younger Manzano faces punishment, he said, but he should be given some leniency. "They shouldn't give him the maximum punishment. I don't think he deserves years in jail," Bush said.

Manzano's case shares ironic circumstances with previous San Diego corruption cases. One Border Patrol agent convicted in 2006, Oscar Ortiz, turned out to be an illegal immigrant who presented a fraudulent birth certificate to get his job. Another agent accused of smuggling immigrants, Raul Villarreal, was a former agency spokesman who played the role of a Mexican smuggler in a Spanish-language public service announcement.

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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