SAN DIEGO – Two former Border Patrol agents were sentenced Tuesday to more than six years each in prison for taking nearly $180,000 in bribes in exchange for releasing immigrant smugglers and illegal immigrants from federal custody.
Mario Alvarez and Samuel McClaren released smugglers and their customers from jail while working on a prisoner transfer program with the Mexican government. They once released a prisoner in a Wal-Mart parking lot for a fee of $6,000, according to court documents.
The agents, based in El Centro, once smuggled two illegal immigrants across the border themselves in a government vehicle and released them for cash, according to court documents. They turned over the location of surveillance cameras and other Border Patrol intelligence to smugglers.
"I made some terrible mistakes, and what I did was wrong," Alvarez, a native of Mexico, told U.S. District Judge John Houston, who sentenced him to six years and three months in prison.
McClaren, 44, wiped away tears with a handkerchief before Houston sentenced him to 6 1/2 years in prison.
"I have betrayed this country, and I think about that every single day," said McClaren, a native of Panama.
The agents were arrested in March and pleaded guilty in July to bribery and filing false tax returns. Alvarez admitted taking $100,300 in bribes and McClaren acknowledged $78,345.
"These veteran agents succumbed to greed, pure and simple," said U.S. Attorney Carol Lam. "While on duty, they smuggled illegal aliens, released criminal aliens from custody, compromised criminal investigations, and jeopardized the safety of their fellow agents."
Prosecutors alleged Alvarez and McClaren took bribes from a ring led by Javier Sanchez Perfino, 28, who was arrested last week on smuggling and conspiracy charges.
The ring smuggled 60 to 80 people a day across the border from Mexico at its height, charging $1,500 a person, said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Sanchez Perfino was denied bail last week in federal court. His attorney, John Lemon, didn't immediately respond to a telephone message Tuesday. His girlfriend has said he is innocent.