Innocents duped into drug smugglingHouston Chronicle October 4, 2011But even prosecutors and a federal judge concede that law-abiding travelers are unwittingly used to smuggle narcotics across the Texas-Mexico border. When their vehicles or bags are searched on entering the United States, inspectors find thousands of dollars worth of illegal narcotics that the travelers can't explain.
At first, their stories sound like borderland smugglers' lies, their defense among the oldest in the book: I didn't do it.
Just recently, an indictment was dropped against Jose Molina, a bus-riding Mexican citizen headed to Houston.
In exchange for a free ride on the bus, which was owned by a relative, he ushered two saddles and other cargo through U.S. customs. But hidden inside the saddles was $20,000 worth of cocaine.
Out in El Paso, at least five people - all caught under strikingly similar scripts at the same bridge over the Rio Grande during a 15-month period - were arrested, including one convicted by a jury and two who pleaded guilty in deals to face less prison time.
Another three were arrested in Mexico, including an elementary school teacher, a doctor and a medical assistant, who, like the others, lived in Ciudad Juarez and worked across the border in El Paso.
"That was the worst day of my life; it was like a nightmare," Ricardo Magallanes, an El Paso college student, recalled of his arrest after a U.S. inspector found 112 pounds of pot stuffed in duffle bags in his car trunk.
"I couldn't understand what was happening or how the bags could have gotten in my car," said Magallanes, a U.S. citizen. "I was wondering if I was going to spend years and years in prison."
Later, in a most unusual twist of justice, their U.S. convictions were tossed out thanks to a skeptical federal judge.
The El Paso scheme highlighted the deviousness of drug traffickers, the vulnerabilities of a touted commuter pass program to reduce border traffic and the innocent people who end up as collateral damage.
It is unclear how many federal cases involve so-called unwitting couriers. Such cases are not tracked by the government.
But Department of Justice figures show that in 2009, there were 3,846 defendants federally charged with drug trafficking in the region that stretches from El Paso to Houston. Of those, 126 were dismissed, 17 were found guilty and the rest pleaded guilty.
Molina, the bus rider, has a clean criminal background and a long employment record and said he didn't know about the drugs in the saddle.
"This has been going on as long as there has been smuggling," said his Houston attorney, Norm Silverman. "If you are a drug-trafficking organization, there is no more effective means you can use than have a person be an unwitting courier. They won't have any signs of nervousness because they simply don't know."
He credited the courtroom prosecutor with doing the right thing by dropping the charge.
But Angela Dodge, speaking on behalf of the Houston-based U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, said dropping charges doesn't mean Molina was duped.
"It merely means that at this time additional evidence is necessary to take the case to trial," she said.
Not like in the movies
The El Paso case was as elaborate as any. The traffickers used an American locksmith to order copies of keys of people who made regular commutes from their homes in Mexico to workplaces or schools in El Paso. Then, the commuters crossed with the drugs and the traffickers snuck the drugs back out of the cars once parked in El Paso.
Those who were arrested had commuter passes that gave them expedited entry into the United States after having passed background investigations, including fingerprint checks.
As a result, U.S. Customs and Border Protection now warns commuters to check their trunks. While he sat in jail awaiting trial, Magallanes, the student, said he refused an offer for less punishment to plead guilty. Prosecutors and federal agents didn't believe him. Neither did grand jurors who indicted him, nor a jury that convicted him.
"I was disappointed in the system," he said. "I thought it would be like in the movies; they'd investigate and there would be fingerprints and everything."
He would have gone to prison if not for the judge.
Senior U.S. District Judge David Briones said he was troubled by the jury's verdict, as there wasn't anything to indicate Magallanes knew about the illegal cargo. The plot might not have unraveled if Briones hadn't shared his concerns with a colleague as the two made their way to a courthouse parking lot.
"I thought, it can't be," Briones recalled to the Chronicle. "The kid just didn't seem guilty."
The other judge had just presided over a similar trial in which a defendant also drove a Ford sedan, had a commuter pass and claimed he didn't know how duffle bags of pot got in his trunk. He was found not guilty.
Later from the bench, Briones declared, "Quite frankly, I think an injustice has been done."
Following his comments, federal agents apparently launched a new investigation and used a confidential informant to break the case.
Larry Karson, a retired Customs Service agent who is a criminal-justice lecturer at the University of Houston-Downtown, said the scheme says a lot about traffickers.
"It is reflection of their cold-bloodedness, that they wouldn't hesitate to let someone else go to prison for their crime," he said.