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Arizona National Guard Busted Smuggling Coke Into US

by Arizona Republic and Varlet Saturday, May. 14, 2005 at 10:17 PM

16 soldiers, law officers charged FBI sting uncovers drug conspiracy Susan Carroll and Dennis Wagner The Arizona Republic May. 13, 2005 12:00 AM TUCSON - Sixteen current and former soldiers and law-enforcement officers were implicated Thursday in a "widespread" cocaine-trafficking conspiracy that FBI officials said will eventually bring down more public officials.

16 soldiers, law officers charged

FBI sting uncovers drug conspiracy

Susan Carroll and Dennis Wagner

The Arizona Republic

May. 13, 2005 12:00 AM

TUCSON - Sixteen current and former soldiers and law-enforcement officers were implicated Thursday in a "widespread" cocaine-trafficking conspiracy that FBI officials said will eventually bring down more public officials.

U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors would not disclose what started an undercover FBI probe in December 2001 that so far has snagged personnel from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, Arizona Army National Guard, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Army, Arizona Department of Corrections and Nogales Police Department.

The first 11 defendants entered guilty pleas to conspiracy charges in Tucson federal court on Thursday in exchange for cooperating with investigators in a larger investigation that involves other agencies, including some outside Arizona, Justice Department officials said. They were released without bail pending sentencing. Five others await hearings. advertisement

Jana D. Monroe, special agent in charge of the FBI's Phoenix field office, said the investigation is "one of the more significant" cases of public corruption in Arizona, a smuggling corridor and distribution hub for illegal drugs. The Justice Department said the defendants helped transport more than 560 kilograms of cocaine from southern Arizona to Phoenix and Las Vegas in exchange for about 0,000.

"Many individuals charged were sworn personnel having the task of protecting society and securing America's borders," she said at a news conference on Thursday morning. "The importance of these tasks cannot be overstated, and we cannot tolerate nor can the American people afford this type of corruption."

One by one, the defendants stood in the airy courtroom as Magistrate Judge Charles R. Pyle called their names. The 10 men and one woman admitted they were in a position of public trust when they agreed to transport cocaine for a drug cartel.

Working in groups of more than a dozen, according to the plea agreements, some defendants took up to ,000 in cash payments from undercover FBI agents. Justice Department officials said they recruited new participants in exchange for extra bribes.

The soldiers and law officers carried official IDs, wore their uniforms and relied upon their "color of authority" to move the drugs, said Noel Hillman, Public Integrity Section chief for the Department of Justice.

One operation in August 2002 involved defendants decked out in military uniforms and riding in National Guard Humvees to a clandestine airfield near Benson to meet a twin-engine plane manned by undercover FBI agents, according to court records.

"Those defendants, while in full uniform, supervised the unloading of approximately 60 kilograms of cocaine from the King Air into their vehicles," according to a Justice Department account. "They then drove the cocaine to a resort hotel in Phoenix where they were met by another agent of the FBI, posing as a high-echelon narcotics trafficker, who immediately paid them off in cash."

Another operation took place in April 2002 when INS port inspector John M. Castillo, 30, allegedly waved two trucks through a Nogales border checkpoint, believing they were loaded with 80 pounds of cocaine.

The Justice Department said every defendant took part in escorting at least two drug shipments. Federal prosecutors typically file multiple felony charges in such cases, seeking severe sentences in high-volume drug cases. In this instance, the suspects face no more than five years in prison.

Prosecutors also routinely bargain with suspects, offering reduced charges for evidence and testimony against co-conspirators.

The 16 defendants were not arrested; instead, they were allowed to appear voluntarily in court to enter guilty pleas after waiving indictment. Hillman said they are cooperating fully with prosecutors and the investigation is ongoing.

More public officials are expected to be implicated, he added, some from agencies outside Arizona.

Maj. Gen. David Rataczak, adjutant general for the Arizona Army National Guard, could not be reached for comment. Maj. Eileen Bienz, a Guard spokeswoman, said military officials "have been fully cooperating with the FBI on this case" and the seven soldiers implicated are not representative of Arizona's 7,000 guard members.

Military investigations and discipline will not take place until the FBI case is completed.

Bienz said she does not know where the soldiers are stationed, but none served on the Joint Counter Narco-Terrorism Task Force.

Investigators would not say what sparked an investigation that began just three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That was a time when FBI officials in Arizona said every agent was engaged in anti-terrorism work.

Hillman said the sting's outcome does not suggest rampant corruption among law- enforcement or military personnel in Arizona. The conduct of 16 individuals out of hundreds of thousands of sworn personnel, he cautioned, is not "reflective in any way of the agencies they work for or the men and women who put their lives at risk every day."

Cocaine sting by local and federal officials

• Roads to Bartlett Lake reopened; 1,200-acre fire under control

• No major Ariz. bases on closure list

• Mesa towing company sues over bids

• GI dad is girl's birthday gift

• 2 jailed in officer's slaying; 3rd accused of ridding evidence

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