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5 years for venal border agent

Besides being in the U.S. illegally, he also smuggled immigrants across the Mexican border.

Published July 29, 2006

SAN DIEGO - Border Patrol Agent Oscar Antonio Ortiz brought a certain inside knowledge to his job policing the U.S.-Mexican frontier: He was in the United States illegally and was once arrested and accused of trying to drive two illegal immigrants across from Mexico.

But his superiors did not know any of that when he applied for a job with the Border Patrol because he had a fake birth certificate that said he was from Chicago.

None of that came out until August, when, after three years of service, Ortiz was arrested again and admitted smuggling at least 100 illegal immigrants into the country, sometimes by driving them in his Border Patrol truck.

On Friday, Ortiz, 29, was sentenced to five years in prison in one of a spate of Border Patrol corruption cases.

Prosecutors asked for about three years, but U.S. District Judge John A. Houston ruled a stiffer punishment was required for Ortiz, who pleaded guilty to charges that included conspiracy to bring in illegal aliens and making a false claim to U.S. citizenship.

"You violated the sacred trust of your comrades," the judge said. "As a link in the chain, they depended on you."

Ortiz expressed remorse: "I was blind at the time I made my mistake."

Critics say the cases raise questions about the hiring process at the Border Patrol as it grows from 11,700 agents now to 18,000 by the end of 2008.

This year, 25 Customs and Border Protection workers have been arrested on corruption charges. Eight have been convicted. Agency spokesman Todd Fraser said he did not know whether that marked an increase but noted it is a small percentage of the force.

The Border Patrol had found promise in Ortiz. A performance review in 2003 noted his "radiant, confident, poised and courteous demeanor," Spanish fluency, exceptional grooming, punctuality and writing skills.

He had joined the Navy in 1998 after growing up in San Diego and working a construction job in Utah. During four years in the military he collected awards, including for good conduct.

Fraser said the agency believed Ortiz was a U.S. citizen - a job requirement - and was unaware of his smuggling arrest, which took place shortly before he applied to the Border Patrol in October 2001. (He was accused of taking $400 to try to smuggle two people across the border but was never charged.) However, in November, the Border Patrol admitted that Ortiz was hired despite admitting using cocaine and marijuana on his application.

Investigators found Ortiz was born in Tijuana, Mexico. His attorney, Stephen White, said in court that Ortiz's mother obtained the fake birth certificate when Ortiz was 3, and Ortiz said he grew up thinking he was a U.S. citizen.

But by age 18, White said, Ortiz knew he was not born in Chicago.

"I grew up thinking I was a U.S. citizen," Ortiz told the judge. "I was living the dream, and suddenly I woke up in my prison, and now I realize who I am."

After Ortiz's arrest, Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol and border inspectors, checked the citizenship of its nearly 42,000 employees, Fraser said. He said he did not immediately know whether other noncitizens were found.

Ortiz worked with another agent, Eric Balderas, to smuggle people near Tecate, a remote area east of San Diego. Wiretaps indicate they were paid $300 per immigrant for looking the other way. If they drove the immigrants, they got $1,800 to $2,000 per person.

Balderas pleaded guilty to conspiracy and awaits sentencing.

Information from the San Diego Union-Tribune was used in this report.

[Last modified July 29, 2006, 02:05:35]

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