McALLEN — A former US Border Patrol agent will spend the next 10 years and one month in federal prison for helping drug traffickers smuggle narcotics into the country.
Chief US District Judge Randy Crane handed down the mandatory minimum sentence to Oberlin Cortez Peña Jr., 23, during a hearing here Friday morning.
“I was a slave to the weakness of the world,” Cortez Peña said when given an opportunity to address the court.
Cortez-Peña said he hadn’t been ready for the responsibilities that came with having the “grown-up job” of being a Border Patrol agent at such a young age. He implied that that’s what caused him to participate in the very crimes he had been tasked with stopping.
“I was catering to evil tendencies within myself… I was not ready for that job. … I was immature,” Cortez Peña said.
Then, he asked for leniency.
“I hope you will show me some grace,” he added.
But federal prosecutors argued that youth was no excuse for what the former agent had done — for how Cortez Peña had used his uniform to aid in drug smuggling.
“The government doesn’t believe that all of this could be explained away by immaturity,” Assistant US Attorney Jongwoo “Daniel” Chung said.
The federal prosecutor didn’t buy it.
“The defendant’s conduct, essentially, was an insult to law-abiding citizens,” Chung said, including other young agents.
He urged the judge to hand Cortez Peña a punishment at the upper range of the sentencing guidelines.
In December 2021, Cortez Peña reached a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.
The former agent admitted to facilitating the smuggling of bundles of cocaine through the Falfurrias checkpoint on at least two occasions.
Cortez Peña worked at that checkpoint and used his knowledge of his fellow agents and their procedures to guide drug traffickers safely through, according to the criminal complaint.
Investigators first became aware of Cortez Peña’s illicit activities in June 2021, when they received intelligence that an agent had been taking money in exchange for helping human smugglers through the checkpoint.
According to the complaint, Cortez Peña agreed to accept $500 in exchange for providing the smuggler with “countersurveillance” and “detailed instruction on when the smuggling had (the) highest rate of success.”
Cortez Peña also gave the smuggler — who was actually a “cooperator” working with federal investigators — tips on how to conceal a migrant. He said he would travel through the checkpoint ahead of the smuggler in order to tell them which lane to go through.
The following day, on June 22, 2021, Cortez Peña met with the cooperator at La Plaza Mall to talk about more smuggling opportunities.
He agreed to help the person smuggle 11 pounds of cocaine in exchange for $1,000.
Again, Cortez Peña offered to give the smuggler information on how best to get through the checkpoint, including tips on how to distract drug-sniffing dogs, how to better hide the contraband and which lanes were patrolled by “rookie” agents.
At one point, Cortez Peña even suggested postponing the drug smuggling attempt because the agents scheduled to work that day “were good” and “he didn’t want to risk being caught,” the complaint states.
Ultimately, Cortez Peña helped the informant cross two cocaine loads through the Falfurrias checkpoint. Each one contained just over 11 pounds of cocaine.
As promised, he traveled ahead of the smugglers and kept watch on their passage, then met with the informant afterwards to collect his payment.
After the second trip — the one for which he pleaded guilty — Cortez Peña met with the informant at a gas station just past the checkpoint to collect his payment. He then returned to the Falfurrias Border Patrol station to begin working his shift.
Investigators took him into custody there and recovered the money, as well as an AR-15 rifle.
Cortez Peña received a sentencing enhancement because of the gun’s presence, which prosecutors said was used in furtherance of the crime.
But in court Friday, the former agent said he had had the gun, which was his personal weapon, in his vehicle because he had planned to go hog hunting in Sullivan City afterward.
The judge found that idea incredible.
“It does strain my belief as to what the reality is of hunting hogs. I’m trying to keep my own experience out of this, having hunted hogs — never with an AR-15,” Crane said. “It does seem disproportionate with the need.”
Ultimately, Crane called Cortez Peña’s crimes a “black eye” to the Border Patrol, but did take his plea for leniency into consideration by sentencing him to only the mandatory minimum.
As he was escorted out of the courtroom by US Marshals, Cortez Peña turned and blew a kiss to his family, including his father, a fellow Border Patrol agent.