SAN DIEGO – U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Jose Luis Cota pleaded guilty in federal court today to bribery and alien smuggling, admitting that he accepted cash and sexual favors from smugglers in exchange for permitting them to bring undocumented aliens into the United States without inspection through Cota’s lane at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Miriam Juarez-Herrera and Gilberto Aguilar-Martinez, the two Mexican nationals working with Cota to commit these crimes, pleaded guilty last week.
Cota, a 15-year veteran with Customs and Border Protection, was arrested in September 2016 following an alien smuggling event with co-defendants Juarez-Herrera and Aguilar-Martinez. According to court documents, Cota confessed to his crimes at the time of his arrest.
The arrests of Cota, Juarez-Herrera and Aguilar-Martinez occurred after a lengthy investigation conducted by the Border Corruption Task Force (“BCTF”), which is composed of agents and officers working at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Customs and Border Protection – Office of Professional Responsibility, Customs and Border Protection – Field Operations, and U.S. Border Patrol.
According to his plea agreement, Cota pleaded guilty to four separate crimes – three counts of bringing in unlawful aliens for financial gain and one count of bribery of a public official. In his agreement, Cota admitted that from at least November 2015 through September 2016, he conspired with Juarez-Herrera to smuggle and transport unlawful aliens from Mexico into the United States for financial gain – charging as much as $15,000 per person.
Cota and Juarez-Herrera had an agreement that as part of the criminal enterprise, Juarez-Herrera would locate and recruit undocumented aliens in Mexico who wanted to be smuggled into the United States. These undocumented aliens would then be smuggled through Cota’s vehicle primary lane at the San Ysidro, California Port of Entry.
Cota also agreed with Juarez-Herrera to obtain the highest smuggling fee from the undocumented aliens and to obtain fraudulent entry documents for the smuggling enterprise. Finally, Cota received bribes from Juarez-Herrera in the form of cash and sexual favors in exchange for permitting Juarez-Herrera and the undocumented aliens whom she smuggled to enter the United States without inspection through Cota’s primary vehicle inspection lane at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Between November 2015 and September 2016, Cota admitted that he allowed Juarez-Herrera to successfully smuggle at least ten undocumented aliens from Mexico into the United States.
After Juarez-Herrera successfully crossed the undocumented aliens into the United States, Cota received his bribes, according to court documents. Following one event, Cota admitted to receiving $13,000 in cash for allowing two undocumented aliens to illegally enter the United States through his inspection lane. Cota agreed that the government could prove that he deposited more than $44,000 in cash bribes into his bank accounts at the time he was under investigation. In addition, federal agents seized more than $17,000 in cash bribes from Cota’s residence following a lawfully executed search warrant in September 2016. Pursuant to the terms of his plea agreement, all of this cash will be forfeited to the United States.
Acting United States Attorney Alana W. Robinson said, “This officer violated the public’s trust for his own personal benefit and financial gain, while risking our nation’s safety and security. Combatting this type of border corruption will remain one of our office’s highest priorities.” She also thanked the agents and officers working on the BCTF whose tireless work both uncovered this corruption and resulted in removing this corrupt official from our border security.
“The vast majority of CBP officers are highly skilled, hard-working professionals dedicated to our mission to protect the American public and we do not stand for those that would tarnish our badge,” said Pete Flores, Director of Field Operations in San Diego. “As in all corruption cases, we worked diligently alongside our law enforcement partners and I’m appreciative of the collaborative effort to bring Cota to justice.”
“This investigation was a collaborative effort among a number of federal law enforcement agencies and demonstrates our commitment to investigate DHS employees who choose to violate the core values they swore to uphold,” said Kathryn Butterfield, Special Agent in Charge for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Professional Responsibility, in San Diego. “Every CBP employee shares responsibility for promoting integrity and for meeting mission demands while sustaining the trust and confidence of the public we serve. An overwhelming majority of CBP employees do so on a daily basis by performing their duties with honor and distinction. However, like any preeminent law enforcement agency, we must be committed to identifying those who do not adhere to the highest standards of conduct. It’s a matter of personal and professional pride. DHS, Customs and Border Protection, Office of Professional Responsibility, will not tolerate those who tarnish the badge and the agency’s reputation.
“Public corruption, which includes border corruption, is the number one criminal priority for the FBI because of the potential harm that actions, like Officer Cota’s actions, can have on our nation’s security,” commented FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric S. Birnbaum. “With this important mission, the San Diego Border Corruption Task Force will continue working with our law enforcement partners and combine our agencies’ resources to root out these corrupt actors.”
The San Diego FBI and the Border Corruption Task Force encourages the public to report allegations of public corruption to our hotline at (877) NO-BRIBE (662-7423).
A sentencing hearing for Cota has been scheduled for April 7, 2017 at 9:00 a.m. before U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller. Cota is currently out of custody on bond. Cota submitted a resignation letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection effective today.