Smuggler Bribed Border Patrol Agent to Bring In Drugs and Migrants, Feds Say

Steven Hsieh
Border Patrol arrests a migrant who had jumped over the border fence near Nogales on February 12, 2019.
A fresh federal indictment accuses an undocumented man of repeatedly bribing a Border Patrol agent who's already being prosecuted for alleged drug smuggling.

The April 21 indictment of Omar Natalio Martinez Fontes sheds new light on the ongoing court case involving the agent, Carlos Victor Passapera Pinott, and how the two coordinated to bring illegal drugs and migrants into the country.

Martinez, who had been living in the country illegally prior being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in early January 2020, has been charged with bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery, and smuggling undocumented immigrants.

The new indictment alleges that Passapera and Martinez worked together using burner phones between June 23, 2019, and January 14, 2020, helping to smuggle in at least 13 undocumented immigrants, including one who had carried 20,000 pills of some kind.

Martinez allegedly paid Passapera $8,000 per person that he smuggled, and more if the migrants were carrying drugs. Passapera asked Martinez to provide the "height and weight" of each immigrant, the court documents state. Federal authorities accuse Passapera of participating in at least 42 instances of human smuggling and 19 episodes of drug smuggling since June 2019. He used the burner phones to communicate with smugglers and picked up both drugs and undocumented immigrants in remote areas of the desert, driving them through a Border Patrol checkpoint in Ajo. Passapera would then drop off narcotics and migrants in Phoenix.

The investigation into Passapera's conduct led to the charges against Martinez. Law enforcement officials reviewed burner phones that were seized from Passapera's home, which was searched after the execution of a search warrant. Martinez was then identified as one of "first contacts" that Passapera communicated with on his burner phones.

Passapera, who had been under investigation by the FBI since early 2020, was charged on August 10 with four counts of drug smuggling. According to a probable cause statement, the Border Patrol agent allegedly first drove to a desert location near the Lukeville port of entry before continuing on to meet an accomplice in a parking lot at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where he handed over two duffel bags.

After the accomplice left the lot, Passapera was pulled over by law enforcement officials who found packages of heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl in the duffel bags, plus 350,000 fentanyl pills. Passapera had $40,000 in cash in his vehicle. Another $329,000 in cash was later discovered at his home, and $641,000 in cash was found in a safe deposit box that he had leased at a local bank.

Passapera's arrest made headlines when the initial charges were announced. But roughly a month later, in an indictment dated September 30, federal prosecutors tacked on additional charges like bribery and conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants for profit.

Prosecutors claim that he "solicited and accepted large cash payments" to use his position as a Border Patrol agent to help drug and people smugglers.

John Mennell, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, declined to answer specific questions but released a broad statement about the case.

"CBP does not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks, and we cooperate fully with all criminal or administrative investigations of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel," he said. "It is important to note that CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission, and the overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe."