Two ex-US Border Patrol agents who forced a group of
suspected drug smugglers to chew handfuls of marijuana and
flee shoeless into the chilly Arizona desert were each
sentenced today to two years in federal prison.
A jury convicted Dario Castillo, 25, and Ramon Zuniga, 31, in
April of violating the civil rights of the four Mexican men,
all of whom were in the United States illegally, in
connection with the incident in southern Arizona five years
The two defendants, who were later fired from the Border
Patrol, each made brief statements apologizing for their
actions before they were sentenced in a Tucson courtroom.
Both have said they were fatigued and under stress at the end
of long work shifts when they abused the smugglers.
"I allowed these individuals to get the best of me that
night," Zuniga told the judge. "I've regretted those actions
every single day for the past five years."
The 2008 incident unfolded after another border agent mounted
on horseback discovered a group of men sleeping in a dry
streambed in the desert and called for backup.
Zuniga and Castillo responded, but as they arrived on the
scene, the group of about 20 suspected smugglers scattered
into the night, leaving behind 21 bundles of marijuana, later
valued at more than $600,000, which were seized.
Four of the smugglers were captured and stripped of their
shoes and jackets, which is normal procedure for agents
maintaining control of multiple suspects.
But then the smugglers' belongings were thrown into a small
fire and three of the men were forced, while kneeling on the
ground in handcuffs, to chew handfuls of marijuana, according
to trial testimony.
The men were then told to flee into the desert, shoeless and
without jackets, on a night when the temperature hovered
around 10degC. They were captured the next morning by tribal
police from the Tohono O'odham Nation.
The unidentified men initially said they had been robbed by
bandits, but after they were transferred to Border Patrol
custody, they accused Castillo and Zuniga of the abuses.
The four Mexicans were never charged and all were eventually
Castillo, who witnesses said lit the fire, burned the men's
belongings and ordered the men to flee, was convicted of four
felony counts of depriving civil rights, punishable by up to
10 years in prison for each count.
Zuniga, who force-fed the cannabis to the men, was convicted
of four misdemeanor counts, each of which carries a maximum
term of one year in prison.
US District Judge Jennifer Zipps said that even though the
two agents were found guilty of different offenses, they were
equally culpable and deserved the same punishment.
She sentenced each to two years in prison, to be followed by
three years of supervised probation after their release.