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Two ex-Border Patrol agents sentenced in smuggling of immigrants

June 21, 2013|By Tony Perry and Richard Marosi

Two ex-Border Patrol agents were sentenced Friday to at least 30 years in prison for smuggling more than 500 people into the U.S.

Raul Villarreal, 44, was sentenced to 35 years for leading the smuggling ring. His brother, Fidel Villarreal, 45, was sentenced to 30 years for managing the operation.

The sentences, meted out in San Diego federal court by U.S. District Judge John Houston, are among the longest given to border law enforcement officials. Houston said he hoped the sentences act as deterrents.

Houston said the smuggling operation was "disgusting" and a threat to national security. The two, both 10-year veterans of the Border Patrol, were convicted at trial in August.

Raul Villarreal was once the face of the agency in the San Diego area, making frequent appearances on Spanish-language TV 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.

In the field, Raul and his brother partnered with Mexican smugglers who guided immigrants on foot across the border in the rugged back country east of San Diego. The brothers picked up the immigrants and transported them farther into the country in their official government vehicles, according to prosecutors.

Two smugglers who partnered with the brothers were also convicted of taking part in the scheme, which ran from 2005 to 2006. The operation generated up to $4 million in profits, according to investigators from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The federal investigation took an embarrassing turn in 2006 when Raul and Fidel fled from their home in a San Diego suburb after being tipped off to the probe. Two years later, Mexican federal agents arrested the Villarreals in a gated apartment complex near the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana. One of the brothers tried to run away but was captured.

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