A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer thought he was being introduced to Irma Perez, a 30-something cafeteria worker at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, as a possible romantic connection.
But she wanted something else from the officer: his cooperation smuggling immigrants through his inspection lane. In exchange, he would be paid $4,000 per person.
It’s a scenario that has played out across the U.S.-Mexico border for years, resulting in border corruption charges against numerous federal officers.
However, this officer reported Perez’s proposal to authorities and was part of an undercover sting that led to her arrest.
On Thursday, Perez was sentenced in San Diego federal court to five years in prison.
“This officer showed strength of character and bravery in coming forward to immediately report this crime,” Acting U.S. Atty. Alana Robinson said in a statement. “The officer put our nation’s security first, and as a result a smuggler who boldly attempted to corrupt a public official will be locked up for years.”
The two were introduced on Dec. 29, 2015, by another cafeteria worker, according to court documents.
Perez, who lives in Chula Vista, told the officer that she smuggled three immigrants per week through the San Ysidro border crossing, prosecutors said, and asked if he would like to become involved.
The officer reported the encounter to the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility the next day and helped set up a sting with the FBI’s Border Corruption Task Force.
The two met in person and planned smuggling jobs in phone calls and text messages. Perez said her husband collected the smuggling fees in Mexico, according to prosecutors. When she told the officer he’d have to come to Mexico to receive his bribery payment, he refused and said it had to be in the U.S.
On the morning of Feb. 22, Perez drove through the officer’s lane in a silver Pontiac with a Chinese man and the other cafeteria worker. She used her daughter’s U.S. passport for the immigrant.
Task force agents followed the car, which eventually stopped at a McDonald’s in Chula Vista. The Chinese man got out and was there for about two hours while agents observed.
Then, he approached another Asian man inside the restaurant and asked in Mandarin to use the man’s cellphone. The man was an undercover FBI agent.
The immigrant placed several international calls on the agent’s phone, and the undercover agent then received a call asking for his help ordering a taxi to take the immigrant to Los Angeles. The caller expressed his appreciation for the agent’s help, asking if he wanted to help with future smuggling, prosecutors said.
After the immigrant left in the cab, the Border Patrol stopped it on Interstate 15 north of Escondido and arrested him. The immigrant applied for asylum; the status of his case was not available.
Later that evening, Perez met with the officer at a Carl’s Jr. in San Diego, her daughter in tow, and paid the $4,000 bribe.
Five more smuggling jobs were scheduled in the following months, but they were canceled for various reasons, prosecutors said.
On May 11, Perez texted the officer, “I was able to get us this big fish!!”
Five days later, she drove the Pontiac through the officer’s lane with three Brazilians and offered her children’s passports as entry documents, according to her plea agreement.
Border Patrol agents who were following conducted a traffic stop and arrested her and the three immigrants.
Perez admitted to investigators after her arrest that she had been paid $2,500 for each immigrant and that she had planned to drive them to Corona, according to the complaint.
U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino ordered Perez to pay a $15,400 fee, in addition to the prison sentence.