Arizona sting catches 2 officials in drug smuggling

PHOENIX Fri Jan 20, 2012 6:47pm EST

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - A U.S. Border Patrol agent and an Arizona jailer trapped in a sting operation have been arrested on charges they conspired to help traffickers smuggle drugs from Mexico, authorities said on Friday.

Ivhan Herrera-Chiang, 29, a Border Patrol agent in Yuma, Ariz., and Michael Lopez-Garcia, 28, a corrections officer at the Arizona State Prison Complex in San Luis, Ariz., were arrested on Thursday, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona said.

They are accused of conspiring to help traffickers smuggle drugs from Mexico into far western Arizona between September 2010 and January 2012.

The two officials were fingered by a confidential informant working for a drug- and human-smuggling network in Mexico, according to the criminal complaint.

If convicted, they face a maximum penalty of life in prison, a $10 million fine, or both.

The informant told federal investigators the organization used a "middleman" to work with a corrupt Border Patrol agent, identified by the underworld tag "La Mujer" or the "The Woman."

Investigations subsequently identified Lopez as the go-between and Herrera as The Woman. Evidence was gathered against both officials using phone taps, surveillance from a helicopter, and dummy loads of cocaine and methamphetamine.

The complaint alleges Herrera provided information including the identities of confidential informants and maps showing the locations of sensors on the border, to which he had access as a member of a Border Patrol intelligence unit.

Authorities say Lopez's role included smuggling two pounds of methamphetamine through a border crossing, guiding cocaine traffickers around Border Patrol checkpoints, and delivering drugs and intelligence materials to undercover U.S. federal agents he believed to be cartel representatives.

Corruption cases involving border police have increased in recent years as the U.S. government has ramped up recruitment in a drive to secure the southwest border with Mexico.

Between 2003 and 2009, 129 Customs and Border Protection officers and Border Patrol agents were arrested on corruption charges, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, figures.

"When a law enforcement officer taints their badge, it erodes public confidence and threatens national security," said James Turgal, special agent in charge of the FBI's Phoenix division.

"The FBI, along with our partners in law enforcement, will continue to combat public corruption at all levels."

(Reporting By Tim Gaynor)

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