- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Jesus Navarro eluded U.S. authorities even before he became the prime suspect in the 2008 killing of a Border Patrol agent.

Their long efforts to get Navarro, a Mexican, convicted in a U.S. court paid off Tuesday when a federal jury deliberated only two hours to find him guilty of murdering Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar Jr. at a popular southeastern California campground.

Jurors rejected testimony by Navarro that he wasn’t even in the marijuana-filled Hummer that struck and killed Aguilar at the Imperial Sand Dunes. Navarro also said he was forced to confess to the crime under interrogation by Mexican officials.

Authorities said the Border Patrol was chasing Navarro’s Hummer and the 32-year-old Aguilar was killed as he laid down a spike strip to stop the vehicle. Prosecutors argued that Navarro intentionally struck Aguilar as he was fleeing back to Mexico.

The 25-year-old Navarro long was an elusive target for U.S. authorities. He escaped to Mexico in a stolen Border Patrol vehicle in another drug smuggling attempt in 2007, less than four months before Aguilar was killed.

Mexican authorities arrested and charged Navarro with migrant smuggling soon after Aguilar was killed but released him in June 2008, outraging the U.S government. Mexican authorities said the United States didn’t seek Navarro’s extradition until a week after he was freed.

Navarro was caught again months later and extradited to the United States.

The stolen Border Patrol vehicle from the 2007 incident figured prominently in the two-week trial. Defense attorney David Bartick said Navarro was “basically expelled” from his drug-smuggling organization because of the unwanted publicity he brought.

“At this point, he was essentially a burned individual who could no longer be used by the organization,” Mr. Bartick said during his closing argument.

Prosecutors highlighted testimony of Navarro’s alleged collaborators to argue that he remained an active smuggler. Eyewitnesses identified Navarro as the driver in photos after the killing, though the defense said its findings were tainted because a photo of Navarro from a previous immigration violation already was circulated widely.

Jurors on Tuesday also found Navarro guilty of conspiring to distribute marijuana in connection with Aguilar’s death. Navarro, of Mexicali, Mexico, faces maximum sentences of life in prison for murder and 40 years in prison on the drug charge when U.S. District Judge Michael Anello sentences him June 27.

U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy praised prosecutors for bringing Navarro to the United States and getting a conviction.

“It truly honored Agent Aguilar and the devastating impact this senseless crime has had on his family and colleagues,” she said.

After Aguilar’s death, the Border Patrol built a 13-mile fence that stretches across the largest sand dunes in the United States. The sands extend about five miles into Mexico. Until 2008, the border was almost invisible, marked by 15-foot concrete obelisks spaced far apart, and riders veered back and forth between them.

The dunes draw up to 200,000 people on busy holiday weekends, offering drug smugglers a chance to blend in. Interstate 8, the main route linking San Diego to Arizona, is less than a half-mile from the border at one point.

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