Mexican Smugglers Exploit the Corrupt Reputation of U.S. Border Officers

Michael Angelo Atondo's U.S. Border Patrol truck is backed up to the Arizona-Mexico border near an opening in the fence. The three men with him stand on the south side of the border next to a pair of Jeep Cherokees also parked close to the gap.

The rear door of Atondo's truck is wide open, but he's not loading illegal immigrants into the vehicle's cage.

It's Monday, April 4, and the men are about 40 miles east of San Luis, beyond an area known as Camino del Diablo — the Devil's Road. Their intentions on this early morning are as treacherous as the old trail weaving through the Sonoran Desert.

About 10 a.m., a nearby motion sensor planted in the desert by border-protection officials is activated, sounding an alarm for radio dispatchers working in the Border Patrol's Yuma Sector.

Agents Jose Sinohui and Aaron Hicks, riding together, respond to the call and unknowingly head in Atondo's direction.

When they get close, they see Atondo's truck. They spot the Jeeps. And then they see a man running west, away from the vehicles. They watch Atondo emerge from between his truck and the border fence, his gun drawn and pointed in the direction of the fleeing man. The two other men jump immediately into their Jeeps and speed into the Mexican interior, leaving behind Atondo, a billowing cloud of dust, and a host of questions for the agents who stumbled upon the scene.

Sinohui and Hicks park their truck and approach Atondo, who tells them that two men fled in the opposite direction. They ran east, he says, toward a hill on the Mexican side. He looks agitated as he runs back to his truck and drives away, supposedly in pursuit of the pair he claimed had escaped.

From their vantage point, Sinohui and Hicks have a view of the clearing and don't see any men running east. They get back in their truck and drive around a hill, where they find Atondo, sitting in his truck.

They pull up next to the obviously nervous Atondo and ask him what he's doing. Atondo blathers incoherently, telling the agents finally that he's searching for a misplaced flashlight.

Sinohui asks Atondo whether he called for backup when he encountered the men. Atondo says he tried but was unable to reach anyone because his radio isn't working.

Sinohui notices that Atondo's Velcro-backed name badge is missing from his uniform. He remembers Atondo wearing it during their morning briefing at headquarters in Wellton — Sinohui was paying close attention to names since he only recently was reassigned to patrol.

Atondo drives off again. Sinohui and Hicks again follow, ending up about 30 yards from the spot where they first came on the scene. Atondo gets out of his truck, walks up to the two agents and tells them — for the first time — that had come across some dope and loaded it into his Border Patrol truck.

Sinohui asks Atondo for permission to search his vehicle, and Atondo says yes.

Inside, Sinohui finds 44 bundles of marijuana — nearly 800 pounds — stacked neatly from back to front. And he notices that the bundles aren't packaged for burreros (human mules), who move such cargo across the desert in backpacks for drug traffickers. Such bundles would have been larger, wrapped in burlap and rope. Instead, these are smaller bricks secured only with tape.

It's an important detail, one that later counters Atondo's claim that he'd just stumbled upon the weed on the ground near the fence. Seasoned agents know that drug traffickers wouldn't leave such bundles for their mules — these bundles were meant to be moved by car.

Sinohui calls a superior to the scene.

Atondo is upset and paces back and forth as all three wait for Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Doug Owens.

When Owens arrives, Atondo fires off several versions of the day's events, including that he had stumbled upon the bundles of marijuana while searching for his missing flashlight, and that as he was loading the bales of weed in his truck, the Mexican men sneaked up on him.

Atondo's story doesn't add up.

It doesn't help that, after the morning briefing, he had asked Sinohui and other agents assigned to "The Line," the area where he was discovered, about routes they planned to take.

A Border Patrol supervisor also tells investigators that Atondo had made repeated requests to be assigned to patrol "The Line."

Two DEA special agents arrive at the Wellton Border Patrol Station about 7 p.m. to question Atondo about the estimated $370,000 worth of pot stuffed in his government truck. The investigation continues into the wee hours of the next morning — and at about 3 a.m. on April 5, the DEA agents haul away Atondo and the pot to their Yuma office. By 5 a.m., Atondo is on his way to the Yuma County Adult Detention Center, where he's booked.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo