TUCSON -- When the FBI began a massive drug sting targeting American military personnel and public employees near the Mexico-Arizona border, Mark A. Fillman was among the first to bite.
An Arizona Army National Guardsman for 32 years, Fillman bluntly told undercover agents that he wanted to become a narcotics trafficker. And on Jan. 21, 2002, he transported 11.8 kilograms of cocaine from Nogales to Tucson, wearing his uniform and using an Army vehicle. In return, he picked up $4,500.
Within a few weeks, the sting mushroomed, as participants began recruiting others into the operation for cash bribes. Damien F. Castillo, another guardsman, joined four others on Feb. 27, 2002, to transport 30 kilograms of cocaine from Tucson to a Las Vegas casino.
Two months later, Castillo would recruit his brother, John M. Castillo, an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The brother allegedly waved through trucks he believed were carrying cocaine at the border checkpoint at Mariposa, Ariz., in return for the largest payoff disclosed -- $32,000.
From January 2002 to March 2004, the FBI operated 20 separate drug runs, in which participants transported cocaine from various points in Arizona. In some cases, the drugs went from the border city of Nogales to Phoenix and in other cases from Tucson to Las Vegas.
So far, 22 guardsmen, prison guards, immigration agents and Air Force personnel have been charged or have entered guilty pleas in U.S. District Court in Tucson, including Fillman and the Castillo brothers.
The task force conducted eight drug runs in 2002, 10 in 2003 and at least two in 2004.
Justice Department officials are disclosing little about the big picture of how the sting operated, but an examination of court records tells at least some of the story. It began small and grew explosively, as public employees rushed to get in on what they thought was a narcotics smuggling ring. More than 560 kilograms of cocaine were transported and more than $250,000 in bribes were paid.
It quickly became one of the largest investigations into public sector corruption on the north side of the U.S.-Mexico border, a reflection of the growing apprehension about the power of drug cartels.
"It is a greater concern than at any time," said Noel L. Hillman, chief of the Justice Department's public integrity section that ran the sting.
In most cases, the FBI stings targeted one group at a time, so prison guards jointly conducted one run and then guardsmen another and Air Force personnel another. It effectively kept the operations compartmentalized, so that only those inside the sting knew what was going on.
The largest group of defendants is from the Army National Guard, which was assigned to help support border security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The FBI launched its investigation in early 2002 when it obtained information that some members of the Guard were susceptible to corruption, though it did not have direct evidence that soldiers were engaged in drug trafficking.
In at least one case, a guardsman was caught moving drugs by the FBI sting and separately. Robert Bakerx, a sergeant in the Guard, was caught up in FBI drug stings on Aug. 22, 2002, and Oct. 16, 2002. Then in July 2003, he was arrested on charges of transporting 168 pounds of marijuana from Mexico, unrelated to the FBI sting. He was discharged from the Guard in July 2004
Bakerx, 43, was on probation for the marijuana conviction when he pleaded guilty to the FBI charges on May 12. On his way into federal court that day, when he encountered a swarm of news media, he spat at Fox News television reporter Natalie Tejeda. Later that day, he was released on his own recognizance, according to the U.S. Marshall's office. Contacted at his home, Bakerx declined to comment.
The undercover operations ended with a run on May 20, 2004, in which airman Jareese V. Jones from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and two Air Force sergeants, so far not charged, are alleged to have transported 15 kilograms of cocaine, according to a summary of the charging documents released by the Air Force.
A Tucson lawyer who represents another defendant said the individuals who had been charged or had pleaded guilty were not the ringleaders.
"These are the bottom tier," said Ralph Ellinwood, who represents Guillermo German, an Arizona state prison guard who admitted taking $13,500 in bribes. "It is what happens with all stings, people who are living close to the line are offered a fair amount of money and they bite."
By some estimates, the prosecutions could ultimately exceed four dozen and take down some bigger players. Hillman declined to speculate on such matters, but said: "You are seeing only one part of a multi-headed beast. There will be many more prosecutions."
A loud message that the Justice Department will fight such corruption is intended not only for public employees but also the Mexican government, which has long contended that the U.S. was quick to criticize Mexico's integrity problems but unwilling to clean its own house, said Peter Reuter, an expert on the narcotics industry and law enforcement at the University of Maryland.
"Mexico is skeptical of the integrity of the American civil service," Reuter said. "Their view is that it is hard to believe nobody in the U.S. is taking money to help move drugs across the border."
Reuter added that although drug enforcement always generated corruption, because so much money flows in the trade, he rejected the idea that the U.S. side of the border was rife with crooked officials.
Law enforcement agents who work on the border, however, said that an increasingly sophisticated Mexican narcotics industry was stepping up efforts to infiltrate the ranks of U.S. agencies. Since Sept. 11, the U.S. has tightened up the border, by some estimates doubling the number of personnel on hand in an effort to intercept potential terrorists and their weapons.
The crackdown has also caused problems for the Mexican drug cartels, leading to greater efforts to corrupt law enforcement, border agents, local police and even prison guards.
"We totally underestimate the counterintelligence and countersurveillance capabilities of the narcotics industry," says Daniel E. Wirth, president of the southern Arizona chapter of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Assn. "They are constantly looking for the weakest link, whether it is human or technological. They spend enormous time and money probing our strengths and weaknesses.
"They know how many people are working on the border, who they are and where they live," Wirth said. "We know they have files on all of the law enforcement people who work on the border."
Wirth, also a federal law enforcement agent, recalled that several years ago a narcotics trafficker arrested in Texas was carrying dossiers on federal agents that included their names, photographs, summaries of their training and their home addresses.
Though southern Arizona has plenty of experience dealing with the turmoil and criminal culture created at its border with Mexico, the prosecution of its own guardsmen, state employees and local officials has delivered a blow to its psyche.
"When I heard about this," said Maj. Eileen Bienz, a spokeswoman for the Arizona National Guard, "the air went right out of my lungs."
The case has generated an allegation of misconduct by the FBI, Justice officials said. They declined to be more specific, but said the charges were under investigation and had not compromised any of the prosecutions. Defense attorneys briefed by the FBI said the matter involved allegations brought by a woman, possibly one of the defendants.
The FBI stings involved a major commitment of resources that included the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, the Defense Department and the Tucson Police Department, among others.
The most brazen sting operation was run on Aug. 22, 2002, when the FBI landed a twin engine King Air on an abandoned dirt runway in the Arizona desert, pulling up to two waiting military Humvees. The crew tossed 60 kilograms of cocaine to 11 members of the Army National Guard, who loaded it in the vehicles and delivered it to a resort hotel in Phoenix.
Jorge A. Calzadillas, then a 19-year-old guardsman, was among those waiting at the airstrip in Benson. He recalls thinking that the whole scene seemed unreal. "It was just like in the movies," Calzadillas said during an interview in his lawyer's office.
At the time, he said he was working full-time at Wal-Mart, taking five courses at Pima Community College and doing weekend duty in the guard that earned him $188 a month. When the other men in his unit tried to recruit him, he declined at first, but gave in "because the others were doing it," he said.
D. Jesse Smith, a lawyer representing Calzadillas, said the FBI sting at Benson was efficient, if nothing else. "They dragged 11 people into that one mousetrap," he said.
Calzadillas made two drug runs in 2002, earning $7,000 in bribes. He said he quit the operation after telling his mother about it and thought the matter was in his past until the FBI knocked on his door April 11. With photos and videotapes of his participation, he was left with little choice but to plead guilty, he said. He was released on his own recognizance by Federal Magistrate Judge Charles R. Pyle and was waiting to be sentenced along with the other 17 defendants who had pleaded guilty.
His last employer, a Lowe's home improvement store, fired him. Now, he is trying to start an Internet business while attending college.
"I made a bad decision," said Calzadillas, wearing blue jean shorts and a gray Army T-shirt. "Whatever comes my way now, I will take it and make the best of it."
Leslie Hidalgo, another private in the Guard, also went along on the airport sting and took $10,000 in bribes.
After participating in the drug runs, Hidalgo's guard unit was activated and she deployed to Iraq, where she drove a truck. It was only after returning that she learned she had been caught. Interviewed briefly at her mother's home in Nogales, Hidalgo said she was worried about going to prison.
"I feel sorry about what I did and I regret it, but it doesn't make it right," she said.
Wirth of the law enforcement association said corruption on the border always came down to an issue of personal integrity.
"Regardless of how much you make, it is always an integrity issue," Wirth said. "A lot of people are poor but can never be bought off. That's why it is fair to pick off guardsmen or law enforcement."
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