A view of the U.S.-Mexico border from Colonia Escondido in Tijuana, Baja California.

A view of the U.S.-Mexico border from Colonia Escondido in Tijuana, Baja California. (Alejandro Tamayo, The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — A former San Diego-area U.S. Border Patrol agent pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to bribery and drug charges, admitting that he was paid at least $110,000 to use his position to help smuggle drugs and undocumented immigrants across the border from Mexico.

Hector Hernandez, 55, pleaded guilty to one count each of attempted distribution of methamphetamine and receiving a bribe by a public official, according to his plea agreement. As part of his deal, prosecutors dropped a second bribery charge.

Hernandez agreed as part of the plea deal to forfeit $110,000 in drug trafficking and bribery proceeds, his 2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser that he used to transport drugs and his interest in his Chula Vista home where he stored drugs on at least one occasion.

Hernandez also admitted in his plea agreement to criminal conduct beyond what he was initially accused of, such as giving Mexico-based human smugglers multiple tours of the border. During those tours he pointed out monitoring devices and cameras, while identifying the best locations for them to move undocumented immigrants across the border without being caught.

“Agent Hernandez betrayed his badge and his country,” U.S. Attorney Tara McGrath said in a statement. “Instead of providing protection from smugglers and drug traffickers, he joined them.”

Hernandez’s attorney did not immediately respond Thursday to a message seeking comment.

A Border Patrol spokesperson in San Diego declined to comment.

Investigators from the Department of Homeland Security, Border Patrol’s parent agency, began investigating Hernandez in April after they learned he “was engaged in border corruption activities,” according to a criminal complaint and search warrant. According to the plea agreement, those activities included the border tours with human smugglers and opening gates in the border fence to allow undocumented immigrants through.

As part of the investigation in May, an undercover DHS agent set up a plan with Hernandez to pay him $5,000 to open a gate for undocumented immigrants, according to documents in the case. During a phone call, Hernandez allegedly asked the undercover investigator to send three undocumented people instead of just one so he could receive a higher payment; later that night, he opened the fence at the agreed upon location.

The undercover agent met with Hernandez the next day, paid him $5,000 and pitched a new scheme that involved moving drugs across the border, according to the plea agreement. Hernandez agreed to a plan in which he would pick up a bag of drugs hidden on the U.S. side of the border fence and transport them to Chula Vista.

That night, Hernandez drove his Border Patrol vehicle to the arranged location and retrieved a duffel bag that investigators had filled it with one pound of real methamphetamine, 22 pounds of sham drugs and a tracking device, according to the plea agreement. He then drove the duffel bag in his Border Patrol vehicle to his Chula Vista home, where he dropped off the bag and returned to his overnight shift.

When he was off work in the morning, he retrieved the bag and drove to another location in Chula Vista where he had agreed to meet his supposed accomplice, according to the plea agreement. But when he handed over the bag to the undercover investigator, agents arrested him.

A search of his home turned up $140,000 in cash and nine grams of cocaine, according to the plea agreement. Hernandez admitted that at least $110,000 was money he made from bribery and drug trafficking.

Hernandez is set to be sentenced in April.

©2024 The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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