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Border Patrol agent arrested for smuggling coke, heroin after exchange at Phx airport

A Border Patrol agent stationed in Ajo, Ariz., has been charged with attempted drug smuggling, including cocaine and heroin, after he and an alleged co-conspirator were arrested after an exchange at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Carlos Victor Passapera Pinott, 53, from Buckeye, Ariz., has been charged with conspiracy and three counts of possession with intent to distribute controlled substances. He is assigned to the agency's Tucson Sector, and faces multiple charges for attempting to smuggle drugs into the United States after officials say he exchanged two duffel bags at the airport, containing multiple packages of drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl pills. 

Passapera appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie A. Bowman on Monday, said the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona. 

Officials with the Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection — Border Patrol's parent agency — did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon, but later acknowledged the arrest of an agency staffer.

According to court documents, around 3:15 a.m. Sunday, Passapera left his home and drove south toward Ajo, where he stopped at the agency's station nearby. Then Passapera went south, heading into the remote desert west of the Lukeville Port of Entry, according to a complaint signed by Ryan Ellersick, a special agent with the FBI. Passapera then drove back north, passing through Why, Ariz., and headed to Sky Harbor, where he parked his white Ford Explorer at the airport around 9:15 a.m. 

"Shortly thereafter," wrote Ellersick, a second man, identified only as "Co-conspirator A" arrived at the airport, and parked next to Passapera's car. The agent got out, and retrieved two duffel bags from his trunk, and placed them in the other man's vehicle. The two men spoke "briefly," Ellersick wrote, before the second man drove away. 

After leaving the airport, "Co-conspirator A" was stopped and searched, and law enforcement officers found "multiple packages," as well as nearly 350,000 pills. This includes about 21 kilograms (about 46 pounds) of cocaine, 1 kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of heroin, and about 1 kilogram of fentanyl. 

Law enforcement agents took Passapera into custody later that day while executing a search warrant at his residence, discovering $329,000 in cash. Officials also found an additional $40,000 in his Ford Explorer parked outside, Ellersick wrote. 

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The U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement that convictions for conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute controlled substances carry a maximum penalty of life in prison, a mandatory minimum penalty of 10 years, and up to a $10,000,000 fine.

"CBP does not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we cooperate fully with all criminal or administrative investigations of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel," agency officials said in an emailed statement Monday evening, acknowledging that an arrest had been made but declining to provide details. "Given the pending investigation, all inquiries are being referred to the FBI and USAO Public Affairs," said the email, which was attributed by the government to an unnamed "CBP spokesman."

"It is important to note that CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission, and the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe," that spokesman said.

The investigation was led by the FBI's Southern Arizona Corruption Task Force, and joined by the Homeland Security Investigations, the NATIVE Task Force in Sells, and the DEA. The Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson is handling the prosecution, officials said. 

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