Opened in 1940, the Falfurrias, Texas, US Border Patrol Station boasts one of the busiest highway checkpoints nationwide. Roughly 70 miles north of the Rio Grande River, the three-lane checkpoint is about 13 miles south of town on Highway 281. On a typical day, US Border Patrol agents will inspect 10,500 vehicles, 2,500 of which are commercial 18-wheelers, rolling north. US Border Patrol photo.
A US Border Patrol agent pleaded guilty Friday, Dec. 17, to helping smugglers in the Rio Grande Valley.
Oberlin Cortez Pena Jr., 22, of La Joya, Texas, faces up to 10 years behind bars. US District Judge Randy Crane slated sentencing for March 1, 2022, in McAllen.
Four co-conspirators already have been convicted in the anti-trafficking probe: Edwin Alejandro Castillo, 23, Sullivan City; Kristian Nicole West, 32, Corpus Christi; and Jose Luis Duran, 25, and Herbey Jose Solis III, 28, both of Mission, all pleaded guilty to smuggling undocumented migrants.
Castillo also confessed to bribery and Duran pleaded to conspiracy to commit bribery.
Pena’s attorney didn’t return messages seeking comment. A message from Coffee or Die Magazine left with Pena’s residence in La Joya went unanswered.
The case began on June 14, 2021, when special agents in the US Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General received a tip that a US Border Patrol agent was taking bribes to help smugglers bring in undocumented immigrants.
A week later, Pena allegedly told a cooperating government witness that for $500 he’d provide details that would help move an undocumented person through the US Border Patrol checkpoint near Falfurrias. He’d help by driving ahead of the smuggler and reporting back which checkpoint lane to use. Pena also tipped off the smuggler on how to best hide the migrant and which time he should arrive, according to his criminal complaint.
On June 22, Pena met the witness at McAllen’s La Plaza Mall. The witness offered Pena $1,000 to help smuggle 5 kilograms of cocaine through the same checkpoint. Pena told him he’d do it himself if rookie agents were working. He also dished on how to beat US Border Patrol, including how to hide drugs in the walls of an insulated cooler and the best ways to distract a canine work dog.
Pena urged the witness to move the drugs on June 28 “because the team sucks and that the (agents) are all rookies,” but they decided to try it on June 25, according to the court filing.
What Pena didn’t know was that the Office of the Inspector General agents loaded the backpack cooler with 5.9 kilograms of cocaine before it drove north on US Highway 281 to the checkpoint. Parked in a nearby Pilot store in Falfurrias, Pena relayed to the witness when the vehicle cleared the lane, according to the agents.
The witness allegedly met Pena at the Whataburger in La Joya later that day and forked over the $1,000.
On July 6, they ran the same caper. The agents loaded the backpack cooler with another 5.9 kilograms of cocaine, and the vehicle drove through the Falfurrias checkpoint. The witness met Pena at the Pilot and paid him $1,000, according to the criminal complaint.
Pena then reported for work at the US Border Patrol station in Falfurrias, where federal agents arrested him.
In his plea deal, Pena copped only to the second shipment of narcotics through the checkpoint.
He remains free on a $100,000 bond, which he secured with a $5,000 cash deposit.
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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