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Mexico: Fugitive Border Agents Apprehended

Raul Villareal

Former U.S. Border Patrol agent Raul Villareal is suspected of assisting human smuggling operations.

Two former U.S. Border Patrol agents suspected of accepting bribes to help smuggle Mexicans and Brazilians into the U.S. now sit in a Mexican prison awaiting possible extradition following their arrest Saturday in Tijuana -- two years after fleeing the United States just as an investigation was closing in on them.

But it could take months or even years before brothers Raul and Fidel Villarreal return to the United States to face charges, a law enforcement official in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City told FRONTLINE/WORLD.

The brothers were featured in the May 2008 FRONTLINE/World story "Mexico: Crimes at the Border," as part of a feature profiling corrupt border agents.They fled the U.S. more than two years ago after apparently learning of the investigation.

"It was frustrating when we were working the case, working it for awhile, then it appears the people under investigation somehow found out about it, resigned their positions and took off," said Jack Hook, special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Department's inspector general's San Diego office. "Their alleged actions are considered to be a security issue when our international borders are compromised."

The brothers allegedly would pick up the illegal immigrants who had already crossed into the United States and transport them in a government-issued vehicle to a safe house in San Diego.

Mexican federal law enforcement officers arrested the brothers during an early morning raid at a gated apartment complex near the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, U.S. law enforcement officials said. The brothers' father was also at the apartment when the Villarreals were arrested, said U.S. law enforcement officials, who believe there had been a recent birthday celebration. Fidel Villarreal tried to escape Mexican law enforcement, but he was caught, the U.S. officials said. Two other suspected smugglers who are charged with bribing the Villarreal brothers were also arrested in Tijuana.

The men were transported to a prison in Mexico City and will go before a federal judge there as part of extradition proceedings, U.S. law enforcement officials said.

Jan Ronis, a lawyer for their family, previously told The New York Times the brothers were prepared to defend themselves if American authorities filed charges.

The brothers worked on several occasions with smugglers to bring Mexicans and Brazilians into the United States, according to an 18-count indictment that was unsealed Monday. The brothers allegedly would pick up the illegal immigrants who had already crossed into the United States and transport them in a government-issued vehicle to a safe house in San Diego, before the immigrants would be transported away from the border. Other charges include money laundering and tampering with a witness, according to court documents.

Raul Villareal PSA

Raul Villareal appeared in a public service announcement for the Mexican Government warning of the dangers of coyotes.

The brothers, who worked at different Border Patrol stations in the San Diego area, had lived with their parents in a San Diego suburb up until their abrupt resignation and disappearance in June 2006. Fidel, 40, was a senior agent while Raul, 39, had been, among other duties, a Border Patrol spokesman. In an ironic twist, he "acted" as a coyote, or human smuggler, in a series of public service announcements made for the Mexican government, warning immigrants about the dangers of using coyotes. (See the video below.)

Some investigators familiar with the case feared that the brothers might have been tipped off to the investigation. The case highlighted the challenges the many agencies charged with policing border agents face.

"Hopefully, with them being in custody, we'll find out why they left," said a high-ranking Homeland Security Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because extradition is pending, adding that a lot of time, manpower and resources had been expended on the case.

The U.S. has 60 days from the day of the arrest to present a formal extradition request and supporting documentation, said the embassy law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the pending extradition. Extradition cases generally can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to complete, depending on appeals.