A former Border Patrol agent who shepherded cocaine shipments through the Falfurrias checkpoint was sentenced to about 10 years in prison Friday.
Chief U.S. District Judge Randy Crane sentenced Oberlin Cortez Peña Jr., 23, of La Joya to 121 months — about 10 years — in prison during a hearing on Friday morning.
“I know what I did was wrong,” Peña said. “And I take full responsibility.”
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Alamdar S. Hamdani said Peña had broken his oath and betrayed the public trust.
“Today’s sentence is a message that we will aggressively investigate and prosecute allegations of law enforcement corruption,” Hamdani said, “and continue to seek significant sentences when necessary to protect the public and their trust in our institutions.”
Peña graduated from Jimmy Carter Early College High School in 2017 and joined the Border Patrol, which assigned him to a busy highway checkpoint south of Falfurrias.
More than 10,000 cars pass through the checkpoint every day, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Agents assigned to the checkpoint stop each car for a brief immigration inspection, which sometimes consists of a single question: “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
Edwin Alejandro Castillo, 24, a smuggler from Sullivan City, paid Peña to waive cars through the checkpoint without conducting a proper immigration inspection.
When they started working together remains unclear.
In March 2021, however, Peña was charged with driving while intoxicated. Border Patrol placed Peña on administrative duty, which took him away from the checkpoint.
Castillo and his associate, Jose Luis Duran, 26, of Mission, decided to contact another Border Patrol agent. Documents filed in the case against them identify the other agent by the initials “M.O.”
Duran met “M.O.” outside a Taco Bell restaurant in June 2021 and handed over $2,000.
Castillo and Duran sent two cars through the checkpoint on June 14. Each car had a driver and four passengers who had entered the United States illegally.
Border Patrol agents knew they were coming.
Brooks County Sheriff’s Office deputies stopped the cars after they passed through the checkpoint. Border Patrol arrested the drivers and detained the passengers.
Agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General started investigating Peña the same day.
“On or about June 14, 2021, DHS-OIG SAs, based on debriefing intelligence, started investigation into a U.S. Border Patrol Agent that possibly accepted money for facilitating alien smuggling through a checkpoint,” according to the criminal complaint against Peña. “During the investigation, DHS-OIG SAs identified and developed a cooperator involved in alien smuggling.”
Agents set up a sting operation.
The cooperator met Peña at La Plaza Mall in McAllen, where they discussed how to transport cocaine through the checkpoint without being caught.
“PENA was willing to transport the 5 kilograms of cocaine if there were rookie agents working at the time. PENA recommended to the cooperator the best places to hide narcotics in a motor vehicle and some tactics to distract the USBP canine work dog (K9),” according to the criminal complaint. “PENA told the cooperator to relay what type of compartment the cocaine would be in and the license plates to the load vehicle so that he may check the plates for any alerts.”
As part of the sting operation, agents transported cocaine through the checkpoint on June 25.
“PENA instructed the cooperator to have the cocaine load vehicle drive through the middle lane because there is a rookie BPA there,” according to the criminal complaint.
After the cocaine passed through the checkpoint, the cooperator met Peña at the Whataburger restaurant in La Joya and paid him $1,000.
Peña shepherded a second cocaine shipment through the checkpoint on July 9. Agents arrested him after he picked up another $1,000 payment.
“He admitted to it from the very beginning, when he got arrested,” said attorney Rick Salinas of Mission, who represented Peña.
Peña pleaded guilty to attempting to aid and abet the possession of 5 kilograms or more of cocaine with intent to distribute. The charge, a federal felony, is punishable by a minimum of 10 years in prison.
Peña returned to court Friday morning for sentencing. A report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office recommended a sentence of 121 to 151 months.
Peña apologized to his family, the Border Patrol and the United States government.
“What he did was wrong,” Salinas said. “He’s accepted responsibility for that.”
Peña was just 22 years old when he committed the crime, Salinas said, adding that Peña simply wasn’t mature enough to be a Border Patrol agent.
Salinas asked the court to consider a sentence close to 121 months.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jongwoo “Daniel” Chung, who prosecuted the case, requested a sentence closer to 151 months.
People younger than Peña serve in the military and sometimes die to defend the United States, Chung said, adding that immaturity alone isn’t an excuse.
Chung called Peña’s conduct an “insult to law abiding people.”
Crane, the federal judge, sentenced Peña to 121 months.
Honest law enforcement is the cornerstone of civilized society, Crane said, and corrupt officers undermine the system.
After being sentenced, Peña blew a kiss to his family and waved as he was escorted from the courtroom.