August 19, 2008 - 6:25PM
McALLEN - A former U.S. Border Patrol agent pleaded guilty Tuesday to using excessive force on two undocumented immigrants in his custody.
Santiago Perez, 28, of Edinburg, told a federal judge in Houston that he struck a Guatemalan man with his service pistol in 2006 and pointed his weapon at another man during a 2007 interrogation.
He resigned his post at the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector under the shadow of an investigation last year.
"Those who are sworn to uphold the laws are equally bound to follow them," U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle said in a written statement. "An injustice has been recognized and accepted by this former agent's admission today."
Agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Professional Responsibility began investigating Perez after the 2007 incident, after he picked up an alleged immigrant smuggler from the Premont Police Department.
Rather than take him straight to a processing station, Perez admitted to driving the man to a secluded area, where he forced him to his knees and interrogated him about where he was supposed to pick up his load.
The man refused to answer even as Perez placed a gun to his temple and continued to deny his involvement when the agent shoved his baton into the man's neck and back, federal prosecutors said. Perez repeatedly threatened to put the man "in a hole" if he did not answer the questions.
In the 2006 incident, the agent detained a Guatemalan man moments after he waded across the Rio Grande near Falcon Heights, authorities said. Even though the man was unarmed and did not resist, Perez hit him on the eyebrow with his weapon, according to prosecutors.
Perez is the at least the second Border Patrol agent stationed in the Rio Grande Valley to face criminal charges this year. Most of the accused have been long-time agents, according to local agency spokesman Dan Doty - not recent hires under the government's push to beef up the Border Patrol's ranks.
In June, agent Reynaldo Zuniga was arrested after allegedly helping an illegal immigrant smuggle drugs into the United States. A month earlier, investigators charged agent Ramiro Flores Jr. with trying to smuggle drugs through McAllen-Miller International Airport. Both men have pleaded not guilty and are currently awaiting trial while on suspension from their duties.
Perez, on the other hand, had worked for the Border Patrol for four years prior to his resignation. He now faces up to up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 fines. He remains free on a $50,000 bond pending a sentencing hearing scheduled for Nov. 5.
"There are not a lot of these cases," Doty said. "But when they happen, we investigate it fully and hold them accountable to justice just like anyone else."
Jeremy Roebuck covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4437.