Smuggling coordinator pleads guilty to bribery; paid BP agent $64K to ferry people to Phoenix
A 36-year-old man pleaded guilty Thursday to bribing a Border Patrol agent, paying the federal law enforcement officer nearly $64,000 to pick up people near Lukeville and slip them past the agency's checkpoints in Southern Arizona.
Luis Alfredo Quintero-Gonzalez was indicted in June 2021 and charged with two counts, including conspiracy to commit bribery and alien smuggling, and a second charge of conspiracy. However, as part of his plea, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the conspiracy charge.
Quintero-Gonzales, a citizen of Mexico, said the payments went to a former Tucson Sector Border Patrol agent who was arrested two years ago and charged with conspiracy and three counts of possession with intent to distribute controlled substances.
Investigators said Carlos Victor Passapera Pinott, 55, picked two duffel bags in the desert near Lukeville and then drove to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. In a parking lot at the airport, Passapera allegedly exchanged the bags with another man, and after federal agents arrested the unnamed co-conspirator, they found the bags contained multiple packages of drugs—including cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl pills.
Passapera was arrested and during a search of his home, investigators found nearly $329,000 in cash, as well as nearly $40,000 in his car. Federal officials later added two money laundering charges against the former agent.
Passapera was charged separately from Quintero-Gonzalez, and pleaded not guilty last year. His trial is scheduled to begin on April 3, 2023, before United States District Judge Jennifer G. Zipps.
According to court records, Quintero-Gonzalez gave "large cash payments" to Passapera to pick up people from the desert near the Lukeville Port of Entry, about 110 miles southwest of Tucson, and then drive them from the U.S.-Mexico border. As prosecutors noted in an updated indictment filed against Passapera in Sept. 2021, the agent "used his status as an active agent" to "conceal his smuggling activities from other law enforcement authorities, and the public" by wearing his uniform and drove his own personal vehicle through the agency's checkpoints, transporting people to "various destinations" in Phoenix.
Passapera "laundered the proceeds," prosecutors alleged, and used the cash to buy a luxury vehicle, jewelry and real estate.
From August to December 2019, Quintero-Gonzalez, or "Flaco" used disposable phones, known as "burner phones" to communicate with Passapera and "coordinate the pick-up and transportation" of at least eight people who entered the U.S. illegally — including one man from Ecuador and Quintero-Gonzalez's brother.
Quintero-Gonzalez said he gave Passapera cash deposits of $5,000, and the agent charged $12,000 to $15,000 per person to smuggle them from Lukeville to Phoenix. One message, used as evidence against Quintero-Gonzalez, showed the agent once complained about his payments. In a message dated Nov. 6, 2019, Passapera grumbled he only received $7,000, and Quintero-Gonzalez replied, telling the agent it was a mistake and he would give Passapera an additional $1,000, according to court records.
Yvette Cantu, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said a conviction for conspiracy to commit bribery and alien smuggling carries a maximum penalty of five years of imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. Quintero-Gonzalez will be sentenced on Oct. 25.
Agents with the FBI's Southern Arizona Corruption Task Force, and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General investigated the case. The Financial Crimes and Public Corruption Section of the United States Attorney's Office, District of Arizona, Tucson, handled the prosecution of Quintero-Gonzalez, Cantu said.