SAN DIEGO -- Raul Villarreal was long a public face of the Border Patrol, frequently appearing on television news as an agency spokesman and acting as a dangerous human smuggler in a public service announcement intended to warn Mexicans about the dangers of entering the United States illegally.
Prosecutors contend now that he knew the smuggler's role well because he really was one.
Raul and his older brother and fellow former agent, Fidel, are accused of smuggling hundreds of migrants in Border Patrol vehicles. Federal prosecutors say the brothers were tipped they were under investigation in June 2006, prompting them to flee to Mexico.
Shortly after, a district police commander in Tijuana who allegedly shuttled the Villarreals' customers in squad cars was killed in a hail of about 200 bullets. The brothers were arrested in Tijuana in October 2008 -- more than two years after abruptly quitting the Border Patrol -- and extradited to the United States to face charges of human smuggling, witness tampering and bribery.
Their trial, set to start next month in San Diego, is one of the highest-profile corruption cases to sting the Border Patrol since it went on a hiring spree during the last decade. The brothers, now in their early 40s, have pleaded not guilty to all counts.
The patrol has suffered a string of such embarrassments since doubling its size over the last seven years to more than 21,000 agents. Criminal indictments against employees of Customs and Border Protection -- which oversees Border Patrol agents and other border security officials -- have increased each of the last four years to 60 in fiscal 2011, according to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general. There have been 232 indictments from October 2007 through April 2012.
The Villarreal case is unusual for the level of detail disclosed in recent pretrial briefings.
The family came to the United States from the central Mexican state of Jalisco in 1984, when the brothers were teenagers. Raul knew no English as a 14-year-old but quickly became fluent. He volunteered to read to children at libraries and collected food for the homeless, joining the Border Patrol in 1995 after earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from San Diego State University.
Fidel excelled as a student, got police training at community college, studied aviation at National University and joined the Border Patrol in 1998. As adults, the Villarreal brothers lived with their parents and siblings at a house they bought for $140,000 in 1996 in National City, about 10 miles from the border.