TUCSON -- FBI agents posing as cocaine traffickers in Arizona caught 16 current and former US soldiers and law enforcement personnel who took about $220,000 in bribes to help move the drugs through checkpoints, Justice Department officials said yesterday.
Those charged include a former Immigration and Naturalization Service inspector, a former Army sergeant, a former federal prison guard, current and former members of the Arizona Army National Guard and the state corrections department, and a Nogales police officer, officials said.
''Many individuals charged were sworn personnel having the task of protecting society and securing America's borders. The importance of these tasks cannot be overstated, and we cannot tolerate, nor can the American people afford, this type of dereliction," FBI agent Jana D. Monroe, who directs the bureau's operations in Arizona, said during a news conference in Tucson.
All 16 have agreed to plead guilty to being part of a bribery and extortion conspiracy, the result of the nearly 3Æ-year FBI sting, acting Assistant Attorney General John C. Richter and Monroe said. Officials said more arrests are expected.
The single conspiracy count carries a maximum prison term of five years and a fine of $250,000. The 16 defendants have agreed to cooperate with the ongoing investigation, officials said.
The FBI set up the phony trafficking organization in December 2001, then lured military and police personnel with money to help distribute the cocaine or allow it to pass through checkpoints they were guarding, officials said.
In one instance, in 2002, several of those charged met an aircraft piloted by undercover FBI agents that was carrying 132 pounds of cocaine at a remote desert airstrip, officials said. In full uniform, they supervised the loading of the cocaine into two military Humvees assigned to the National Guard and another government vehicle, then drove to a resort hotel in Phoenix. There, an undercover agent posing as a trafficker paid them off in cash, the Justice Department said.
The FBI used real cocaine seized in other operations, the officials said. The 16 suspects transported more than 1,230 pounds and accepted more than $222,000 in bribes, the officials said. Each escorted at least two shipments of cocaine to Phoenix, Las Vegas, and other locations, they said.