A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer accused of helping a drug smuggler cross 3,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States on Monday appeared for the first time before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Morgan in Brownsville.
Authorities said Jose Luis Zavala, 38, of Brownsville, was arrested Friday and charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana and bribery of a public official. Zavala has been a CBP officer for seven years, assigned to the Brownsville area.
According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of Texas, Zavala was paid to allow vehicles filled with marijuana to cross the international bridges.
The USAO complaint says on Nov. 19 Zavala was working at the GatewayInternationalBridge when a man appeared in an inspection lane manned by Zavala. The driver reportedly presented a U.S. passport, but then “unbeknownst” to Zavala the van was randomly selected for a secondary inspection. Zavala allegedly later told agents that he believed the driver of the van was not the owner of the passport.
The driver fled and ran back to Mexico, leaving the vehicle filled with 3,002 pounds of marijuana. Court records allege the marijuana was not concealed in the van or made to appear as legitimate cargo.
Court records show that on Nov. 22 , agents at White Sands High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force were notified that a pedestrian linked to the smuggling attempt was at the Brownsville & Matamoros Port of Entry, attempting to enter the U.S.
Agents interviewed the man, whose identify remains confidential. The confidential source told agents that he and others had been paid $360 to provide their passport card to a drug cartel in Mexico to be used by drivers of marijuana load vehicles to gain entry in the United States.
Court records show the confidential source told investigators they had met with a U.S. immigration officers that went by the name of “Pepe” in Mexico. The confidential source reportedly gave a physical description of Zavala and his vehicle and identified him from a photo lineup created by agents.
The texts, noted in the court papers, appear to indicate that Zavala is a cousin with whoever texted him, and that they were working for an uncle.
"Pepe I was told by my uncle that the thing was lost," reads one of the texts after the marijuana was seized. "Where do I go or what do I say when I cross?"
The text was sent by a person who was allegedly the real owner of the passport card that was left behind in the van.
If convicted, Zavala faces a minimum of 10 years and up to life in federal prison for the conspiracy charge as well as a maximum of 15 years for bribery.