A local Border Patrol agent pleaded not guilty to drug trafficking charges on Thursday.
Oberlin Cortez Peña Jr. — a 22-year-old Border Patrol agent from La Joya — appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nadia S. Medrano on Thursday afternoon.
The judge told Peña a grand jury had indicted him on two counts of attempting to aid and abet possession with intent to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine. If convicted, he faces 10 years to life in federal prison.
“Not guilty, your honor,” Peña said.
Agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General arrested Peña after conducting a sting operation at the Falfurrias checkpoint.
The investigation started in mid-June, when the Office of Inspector General received information about “a U.S. Border Patrol agent that possibly accepted money for facilitating alien smuggling through a checkpoint,” according to the criminal complaint against Peña.
It’s unclear whether the person in question was Peña or another Border Patrol agent.
The indictment against Peña also included charges against at least one person who allegedly offered a $2,000 bribe to a Border Patrol agent with the initials “M.O.”
Who, exactly, offered the bribe remains a mystery. The name of the person or people who offered the bribe were redacted from the indictment.
A week after the Office of Inspector General received the information about corruption within the Border Patrol, agents sent an informant to meet with Peña.
Peña told the informant how to hide cocaine and discussed ways to distract a drug-sniffing dog, according to the criminal complaint. He also checked Border Patrol schedules to find out when “rookie” agents would be working the checkpoint.
The informant smuggled 5.9 kilograms of cocaine through the checkpoint on June 25, according to the indictment. Peña accepted $1,000 for his assistance during a meeting at the Whataburger in La Joya.
On July 9, the informant smuggled another 5.9 kilograms of cocaine through the checkpoint. Peña accepted $1,000 during a meeting at the Pilot gas station in Falfurrias.
Agents with the Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Professional Responsibility arrested Peña when he returned to the Falfurrias Station.
Peña spent the next six days at the East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa. He appeared in court by videoconference Thursday wearing an orange jail uniform and a blue surgical mask.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jongwoo “Daniel” Chung requested that Peña be held without bond.
“The defendant has ties to the community, no doubt. And the government doesn’t dispute that,” Chung said. “But the difference that we see in this defendant compared to some of the others in this courtroom is that he and his family are resourceful. They have no problem picking up everything and moving to somewhere else — that’s not the United States. Or Mexico, where the defendant’s mother has family.”
Peña had problems before the sting operation.
The Alamo Police Department had arrested Peña on a drunken driving charge in March. After the arrest, Border Patrol placed Peña on administrative duty.
“This is a case involving a Border Patrol agent that was on Border Patrol time when he was committing this crime,” Chung said. “He was doing this while he was on administrative duty based on his criminal charge back in March of 2021.”
Peña willingly and enthusiastically provided advice on how to smuggle cocaine through the checkpoint, Chung said, and releasing him on bond would send the wrong message.
While she understood his argument, Medrano disagreed.
“This isn’t a sentencing hearing. This is his bond hearing. Sentencing is where messages get sent,” Medrano said. “Here, the only question I have is whether or not, again, he’s going to appear for court and whether I believe he’s a risk to the community. And if I can set conditions that would address those matters.”
Attorney Rick Salinas of Mission, who represents Peña, said his client wasn’t a flight risk and didn’t pose a danger to the community.
Salinas also pushed back against the suggestion that Peña’s family would flee the country.
Peña’s father is a Border Patrol agent, Salinas said in an interview. Peña’s brother is also in the process of becoming a Border Patrol agent.
Medrano decided to set bond at $100,000.
The court also required Peña to pay a $5,000 deposit, find a co-surety and a third-party custodian, and submit to GPS monitoring. He’s also required to refrain from excessive use of alcohol and be home by 9 p.m. every night.