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San Diego trial begins for CBP officer accused of accepting bribes

A prosecutor told jurors Monday that a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to allow drugs and undocumented migrants to pass through the San Ysidro port of entry, while a defense attorney said the agent was a scapegoat for drug traffickers and his staff. own wife.

Leonard Darnell George, 41, is charged in San Diego federal court with counts involving receiving a bribe as a public official, conspiring to bring in undocumented immigrants in the United States for financial gain and conspiracy to import and distribute methamphetamine.

Prosecutors allege George befriended two travelers passing through his inspection lane in 2021 because of their shared interest in a Tijuana strip club. The men turned out to be members of a drug trafficking group and used their new friendship to establish a plan in which they would send drugs – including methamphetamine, fentanyl, cocaine and heroin – as well as undocumented immigrants through George’s driveway when he was on duty. , according to prosecutors. The government alleges that George earned between $300,000 and $400,000 while working for the group between approximately October 2021 and June 2022.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Kimura told jurors during opening statements Monday that George’s nickname among the drug dealers he worked with was “the watchman” because he was supposed to prevent the contraband to enter San Diego via Tijuana.

“He was a guard who switched sides to get rich,” Kimura told the jury.

Drawing on the sports metaphor, Kimura said that if jurors “want to know what’s going on in the group, they need to talk to the team members.” He told the jury that George’s teammates were drug and human traffickers who would testify against George, who he said “was not worthy of the badge he wore.”

Defense lawyer Antonio Yoon attacked the credibility of the witnesses.

“Four criminals and one angry woman – sounds like a Broadway play, doesn’t it?” » asked Yoon. But he said that rather than a theatrical performance, his client was experiencing a “nightmare of false accusations”.

Yoon told the jury that George’s co-defendants would receive lighter sentences by testifying for the prosecution. The defense attorney said George’s wife had reason to testify against her husband because of the potentially incriminating text messages she sent.

“What option does she have?” He asked.

The defense attorney did not dispute that George befriended the two men — Mario Gutierrez and Esteban Galvan — who used his vehicle lane at the San Ysidro border crossing. Yoon also admitted that his client cheated on his wife and frequently visited the Hong Kong Gentleman’s Club in Tijuana, a strip club known for offering prostitution.

“It wasn’t the best thing to do for a law enforcement officer to be spotted there,” Yoon told the jury.

But the defense attorney said it was only circumstantial evidence that did not prove his client’s guilt. He said the four drug dealers who would testify against George all had something in common: “a lot of (potential) time in prison.”

Kimura, the prosecutor, said the Tijuana strip club played a key role in the plot. That’s where Gutierrez and Galvan told George they were from the day they met. George allegedly exchanged numbers with the men, asking them to text him the next time they were there. The two traffickers then obtained permission from their boss “to shower (George) with a lavish party” at the club in order to implicate him in the plan to send drugs and migrants through his corridor.

Kimura showed jurors text messages between members of the drug trafficking group discussing the presence of a CBP officer on the payroll. He played an audio recording of a drug smuggler explaining his intention to pass through a corrupt CBP agent’s lane. And he showed the jury text messages, translated from Spanish, allegedly between George’s wife and a high-ranking member of the drug trafficking group, discussing whether George was supposed to receive a lump sum for a vehicle full of undocumented migrants or for each person. in the vehicle.

“I agreed with your husband about the car,” reads the message from the alleged leader of the trafficking group to George’s wife.

“It can’t get any more explicit than that,” Kimura told the jury. The prosecutor also showed jurors a selfie taken by Galvan jokingly showing him wearing a CBP uniform – believed to have belonged to George.

Galvan, Gutierrez and several other co-defendants in the George case have pleaded guilty but have not yet been sentenced. The factual basis outlined in Galvan’s plea agreement indicates that George sometimes showed his CBP badge to sex workers at the Hong Kong club.

Galvan’s plea agreement states that the trafficking organization would send four or five vehicles loaded with drugs or undocumented migrants through George’s driveway during each shift he worked. Galvan estimated in his plea agreement that about 300 undocumented migrants entered the United States through George’s Lane.

The plea agreement from Galvan and others in the case does not specify the amount of drugs that allegedly passed through George’s driveway, saying only that it was “quantities in kilos.” But a vehicle allegedly sent by the trafficking group — prosecutors said it was inspected after its license plate triggered an alert that George couldn’t ignore without arousing suspicion — contained 223 pounds of meth and 13 pounds of fentanyl.

George, who joined the CBP in 2018 after working as a prison guard for the private company CoreCivic, has remained in federal custody since his arrest last July after prosecutors successfully convinced a judge that he posed a risk of fled due to his significant ties to Tijuana. .

If convicted, George would become the second officer from a Department of Homeland Security agency to appear in court in San Diego in recent weeks. Last month, former Border Patrol agent Hector Hernández was sentenced to seven years and three months in prison after admitting to accepting bribes in exchange for opening a border fence, believing that he allowed undocumented migrants to enter the country. On another occasion, he transported drugs in his agency vehicle while on duty.

In 2013, a federal jury found former CBP officer Lorne Jones guilty of drug conspiracy in a prosecution similar to George’s. Jones, who worked at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings, was acquitted of corruption charges. He allegedly received around $500,000 in exchange for allowing drugs and undocumented migrants to travel on vehicle lanes. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.

Oscar Ortiz Martinez, a former Calexico-area CBP officer, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2013 for a similar scheme to allow drugs and migrants to pass through his inspection lane. Luis Francisco Alarid, a former San Diego-area CBP officer, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2009 after pleading guilty in the same type of scheme.

California Daily Newspapers

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