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CBP officer gets 30 months for taking $6k bribe to let felon cross border

A Customs and Border Protection officer was sentenced last week to 30 months in prison for taking a $6,000 bribe to let a foreign national with a felony record cross into the United States in Nogales in 2018.

Jose Rosalio Fuentes, then a canine officer guarding the border crossing, pleaded guilty last February, but kept pushing back his sentencing until a judge refused to grant any further extensions.

Fuentes, now 58, had a meeting two years ago with an unidentified person that led to the question of what would happen if that person’s friend, Juan Carlos Gonzalez-Villa, came to the border to turn himself in on outstanding warrants. Fuentes told him Gonzalez-Villa would get five years in prison unless he came to the Nogales port while he, Fuentes, was on duty.

“Why don’t you wait until I am at the port, what do you think about that?” Fuentes said, according to court documents. “Because I was going to tell you, if he wants to go to jail, he will be in jail for five years. Or he can wait for when I’m there and then well — he passes, right?”

Fuentes was aware that Gonzalez-Villa was a convicted felon who had been deported, authorities said.

Surveillance footage showed Fuentes leaving his post with his dog to go to the pedestrian inspection point to fake the procedure to let Gonzalez-Villa into the U.S. He later messaged the unidentified person helping the exchange through WhatsApp about meeting to accept the bribe, court documents said.

The $6,000 that Fuentes requested the day before was to pay bills, he said to his unidentified contact, according to court documents.

“I would like to see if it could be six . . . at least to pay for this month’s utilities because I’m also behind. Please if you could make it six, thanks. Bye,” Fuentes said by message. “Juan Carlos cannot be saying anything please and thanks because this was a God send because I didn’t have to pay the rent or the car, power, etc. Thanks,” he said in another.

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At one point, Gonzalez-Villa used the unidentified person’s phone to respond, “This is Juan Carlos - all good!!! You’ll have it in your hands Monday!!! Don’t worry!!! Zero nothing happens!!! Thanks motherfucker for the favor!!!”

Gonzalez-Villa was arrested in the U.S. about a week after crossing on several outstanding warrants, including a weapons offense, authorities said.

The cash-for-crossing scheme wasn’t an isolated incident, authorities said, alleging that Fuentes had engaged in a "pattern of flagrant corruption."

According to court documents, Fuentes had arranged several other human smuggling schemes in the past, and discussed plots to help smuggle drugs, including meth and heroin. Fuentes usually asked for a price of $4,000 per person who wanted to be smuggled.

Fuentes at one point scared himself into thinking one of these people being smuggled was Joaquin Guzman or El Chapo, the Sinaloan drug lord. His unidentified contact reassured him that was unlikely, and they later enjoyed looking back and laughing at the “El Chapo” incident.

After a failed drug smuggling scheme, Fuentes was arrested in October 2018. When the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security-Office of Inspector General asked about Gonzalez-Villa, he denied knowing who that was. He also lied about smuggling others into the U.S. and tried to coordinate his lies through WhatsApp with the person whose identity wasn't disclosed in court papers.

The maximum penalty for Fuentes’ crime, Bribery of a Public Official, means a $250,000 fine and 15 years in prison, but Fuentes struck a deal with prosecutors that gave him 30 months out of the maximum 36 that came with the sentencing range of his plea agreement. The court also fined him $6,000, a $100 special assessment, and ordered three years of supervised release to follow his prison sentence, which includes probation.

A group of federal agencies participated in the investigation alongside the Tucson Police Department to stop Fuentes as part of the Southern Arizona Corruption Task Force. This task force included cooperation from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection and several other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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