TIJUANA, Mexico -- The morning of March 4, 2012 was an unusually warm day in Southern California. Eugenio Velázquez, 50, a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico. That sunny morning, he tried to cross the border from Tijuana into San Diego. It was 9 a.m.
Velázquez, a renowned architect responsible for various buildings in Tijuana, was a trusted traveler enrolled in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's SENTRI program. He'd passed the requisite background check and personal interview needed for SENTRI pass holders.
But that morning, a drug sniffing dog caught scent of narcotics under the hood of the architect's Nissan minivan.
U.S border agents asked Velázquez if he had anything to declare. He said no. But 12.8 pounds of cocaine were hidden in five packages inside the minivan's battery. The architect was arrested immediately.
Maximino Melchor, a rising opera star from Tijuana, is involved in a similar case. It unfolded on Sept. 19, 2012, when Melchor, 23, was pulled over on Interstate 5 in north San Diego County, near Camp Pendleton. Law enforcement officers discovered 44 pounds of methamphetamine in the vehicle he was driving. He, too, was arrested.
Maximino Melchor, Opera Singer, In 2011 Performance
Both men pled guilty to smuggling drugs. Their respective defense attorneys said both were forced into trafficking — that they operated under duress.
"I represent a lot of people who are arrested at the border with drugs," said Jeremy Warren, the architect's lawyer. "Obviously, it's one of our garden-variety type cases here in San Diego. But with regard to a duress defense, which is the technical defense for someone who's being forced to do it, coercion or duress, it happens. It comes up with come frequency. It's not that common, but we're seeing it more these days."
Joe Garcia is the Special Agent in Charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Diego. "People will always say they were forced, or something like that," Garcia said. "It's in human nature to try to mitigate your involvement."
Garcia said ICE investigations typically prove that smugglers were complicit, even if they were in fact threatened. For example, after being asked to pay $40,000 in fees for "protection" services, the architect chose to cross drugs instead to pay off this "debt."
Lawyers for both men said their clients felt as if they had no choice. Yet neither reported anything to law enforcement. That step is crucial to mounting a successful defense.
"The problem in the typical case is that there's no corroboration," Warren said. "So the story that you hear from a client who says 'look, they were going to do something bad to me,' and you may believe them, but really there's nothing you can do about it, because the risk is far too great. If you fight your case, and go to trial, and lose, you're going get a ten-year minimum mandatory sentence for cases involving cocaine or methamphetamine."
Yet the architect didn't get ten years. In these two high-profile cases, the outcomes were very different. While the architect's cocaine was seized at the border, the opera singer's meth was seized on a California highway.
That meant the singer's case was tried in state court, while the architect's went before a federal judge –- who likely sees far greater seizure amounts as part of a regular caseload.
The young singer was sentenced to nine years in jail, while the architect got just six months. He was able to produce witnesses who testified that he'd been threatened.
"Our part as investigators is to conduct an investigation and then present the evidence that we find to the U.S. Attorney's Office, and they in turn present the case," Garcia said. "Would I have liked to see a stiffer sentence? Yes, but we leave that to the courts."
Another complication stems from those smugglers known as "blind mules." In blind mule cases, smugglers say drugs were placed in vehicles without their consent or knowledge.
To Victor Clark Alfaro, of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights, unintentional and forced drug smuggling isn't new. What is new, he said, is U.S. attention to the problem. Clark has served as an expert witness in American courts for criminal defense cases related to mules and blind mules.
"For the first time, the American authorities recognize that we have this border phenomenon," Clark said. "It's not only happening in Tijuana, but it's happening in Nogales, in Juárez, in Reynosa, in other parts of the border."
Earlier this spring, a rash of blind mule trafficking cases led ICE to warn border residents of the threat. They took out ads in local Tijuana newspapers like Frontera and El Mexicano, warning residents not to accept jobs driving cars across the border.
Although the opera singer received a fairly typical sentence, the architect's unusually lenient sentencing may suggest that some U.S. courts are starting to take a more nuanced look at certain drug cases.
Longtime border reporter Sandra Dibble, from the U-T San Diego, initially broke the news about the opera singer and the architect. If she hadn't, the stories may have never been told in the American press.
Dibble said she initially learned about the singer's case after a mutual friend informed her of the situation. From there, her own investigation led her to discover the architect's case. He'd been arrested nearly six months before, in March 2012.
"To me, it says that if these guys can fall, that means anyone can fall," Dibble said. "That's why I found it so interesting. Who else has been approached? And what happened to them?"