- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Two former U.S. soldiers and an Army National Guard sergeant pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court in a bribery and extortion scheme to protect federal agents posing as drug smugglers moving cocaine into the United States from Mexico.

The guilty pleas, offered in U.S. District Court in Tucson, Ariz., bring to 40 the number of military and law-enforcement personnel who have pleaded guilty in a four-year Justice Department undercover investigation known as “Operation Lively Green.” It is one of the largest public-corruption cases along the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years.

Anthony R. Fimbres, 39, a former private first class in the Arizona Army National Guard; Steven L. Lawler, 26, a former U.S. Army sergeant; and Ray Segala, 52, an Arizona Army National Guard sergeant, pleaded guilty to conspiring to enrich themselves by obtaining cash bribes from persons they believed to be narcotics traffickers. The “smugglers” were in fact FBI agents.

The three are accused of using their official positions to assist, protect and participate in the activities of an illegal narcotics-trafficking organization engaged in the business of transporting and distributing cocaine from Arizona to locations in the southwestern United States.

The conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Each defendant has agreed to cooperate in the FBI’s ongoing investigation.

To protect the cocaine shipments, the men wore uniforms and carried official forms of identification and used official vehicles and their color of authority to prevent police stops, searches and seizures as they drove the cocaine shipments, said Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher, who heads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.

The FBI undercover probe, which began in December 2001, documented that all 40 of those charged escorted at least one shipment of cocaine from Tucson and Nogales, Ariz., to destinations that included Phoenix and Las Vegas. Investigators said more than $330,000 was paid in bribes involving the shipment of more than 700 kilograms of cocaine into the United States.

Those arrested were employed by a variety of agencies, including the U.S. Army, the Arizona Army National Guard, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, the Arizona Department of Corrections and the Nogales, Ariz., Police Department.

Among those pleading guilty was John M. Castillo, 30, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service inspector, who admitted in April 2002 to waving a truck he thought was carrying 88 pounds of cocaine through a border checkpoint. A few months later, he sold undercover FBI agents fraudulent immigration documents.

In another instance, Justice Department officials said, some of the defendants drove three marked government vehicles, including two military Humvees assigned to the Arizona Army National Guard to a clandestine desert airstrip near Benson, Ariz., on Aug. 22, 2002, where they met a twin-engine King Air aircraft flown by undercover agents.

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