September 8, 2008

Former agent pleads guilty to helping smugglers

By Jeremy Roebuck
McALLEN - A former U.S. Border Patrol agent who helped drug smugglers bring cocaine into the country has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy.

Reynaldo Zuniga, 34, of Harlingen, admitted Wednesday that he used his official vehicle in June to pick up a Mexican national carrying cocaine and drive him past Customs checkpoints.

The then agent accepted cash payments on at least five other occasions to take smugglers from the river banks south of Hidalgo to a Whataburger just north of the international bridge, according to court documents.

Zuniga admitted to aiding the men during an interview with internal investigators soon after his arrest, the documents state. But until last week, he had denied any knowledge of what they were carrying.

Federal authorities, however, had taped the agent's interactions with smugglers through a hidden camera placed in his Border Patrol vehicle.

In one such video, Zuniga reportedly grabbed a backpack the trafficker was carrying and looked at its contents before driving away, Assistant U.S. Attorney Toni Treviño said in a hearing in June.

Zuniga is one of three local Department of Homeland Security employees to be accused of drug or immigrant smuggling in the last four months.

Agent Ramiro Flores Jr., 36, was arrested in May after allegedly using his Border Patrol badge to sneak cocaine past checkpoints at McAllen-Miller International Airport.

On Friday, federal authorities unsealed a 13-count indictment against Brownsville-based U.S. Customs and Border Protection Inspector Guadalupe Garza, who allegedly accepted bribes in the form of cash and erectile dysfunction medication to help smuggle immigrants across the border.

Both have been suspended pending the outcome of their cases. Zuniga resigned his position shortly after his arrest, local Border Patrol spokesman Rick Rosas said.

Zuniga, who has remained in federal custody since his arrest, now faces up to life in prison and fines of up to $4 million at a sentencing hearing scheduled for December. His attorney - Joe M. Valle - did not return calls for comment Monday.

Co-defendants Jose Luis Arteaga Echazarreta and Luis Alfredo Cruz Hurtado - both smugglers swept up in the former agent's arrest - have also pleaded guilty and face similar prison terms.

Jeremy Roebuck covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4437.

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