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Border agents to be sentenced for smuggling hundreds of immigrants into US

Two brothers who worked as Border Patrol agents were scheduled to be sentenced Friday for smuggling hundreds of immigrants into the United States in one of the highest-profile corruption cases to sting the federal agency in a decade.

Raul and Fidel Villarreal face a maximum of 50 years in prison and at least $1.25 million in penalties when they appear before U.S. District Court Judge John A. Houston in San Diego.

Prosecutors said Raul Villarreal -- who made television appearances as an agency spokesman and once played the role of a smuggler in a public service ad --recruited his brother to his ring that smuggled in Mexicans and Brazilians. One Brazilian woman told investigators she paid $12,000 to cross.

Federal officials said they also took bribes from public officials.

The federal probe began in May 2005 when an informant tipped off the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Investigators installed cameras in areas where migrants were dropped off, planted recording devices and placed tracking instruments on Border Patrol vehicles. They also trailed the ring's smuggling operations by airplane.

Prosecutors said when the brothers learned they were being investigated in June 2006, they quit their jobs and fled to Mexico.

Two years later, the brothers were arrested. They were extradited to the U.S. and charged with human smuggling, witness tampering and bribery.

Raul Villarreal's attorney, David Nick, had argued the prosecution's witnesses were not credible and surveillance yielded no evidence of wrongdoing by his client.

Fidel's attorney, Zenia Gilg, echoed that argument, saying the prosecution's case rests largely on two alleged accomplices who were promised leniency for testifying and "inconsistent statements" from migrants.

The Border Patrol has suffered a string of such embarrassments since doubling its size in less than a decade, including the case of an agent who pleaded guilty in April to smuggling marijuana while on duty along the Arizona-Mexico border.

Raul earned $82,859 as an agent in 2005, while Fidel made $77,803.

The Villarreal brothers, who were born in Mexico, lived with their parents and siblings at a house they bought for $140,000 in 1996 in National City, about 10 miles from the border. Letters from family and friends say they were devoted to their parents, a diabetic mother and a father with a heart condition.

But there were problems before the probe. Raul was suspended for four days without pay in 2005 after a drunken encounter with Chula Vista police officers.

That same year, "unexplained cash deposits" were made to his bank account that amounted to $61,121 by 2006, according to prosecutors who said he traveled to the Cayman Islands at that time. One alleged accomplice told authorities that Raul spoke of having bank accounts in the Cayman Islands and Argentina.

The brothers quit abruptly, citing a family emergency and said they could not do exit interviews.

A few days earlier, Fidel withdrew $10,000 from his North Island Credit Union account. One day before Raul resigned, he reported that his 2000 Mercedes-Benz ML430 was stolen but, according to prosecutors, he took it to Tijuana in an attempt to scam his insurance company.

Raul transferred ownership of the family's National City home to his younger sister shortly after quitting. A year later, the brothers emptied their retirement accounts.

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