On the Take 

INS special agent convicted of smuggling immigrants for $300

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000

Jesse Jerry Gardona, a special agent assigned to the anti-smuggling squad of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, will be sentenced next Tuesday in federal court on charges of bribery and harboring and transporting illegal immigrants.

The 41-year-old Gardona, a 12-year veteran of the INS, was liked by his colleagues and respected even by the defense attorneys he sometimes opposed in court. And yet, according to documents filed in federal District Court, Gardona developed a sideline of slipping some of the immigrants he captured out of INS custody and ransoming them off to family members scattered across the United States. His going rate: $300 a head.

Gardona‘s case poses questions of corruption at the INS, as numerous officials from the immigration agency worked closely with Gardona. INS officials declined to comment on the matter pending Gardona’s sentencing. The case also raises tricky issues for the Department of Justice, issues akin to those facing the LAPD in the Rampart scandal: Its prosecutors must now decide how to handle pending and past cases tainted by Gardona‘s role as lead investigator.

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More broadly, government officials might ponder why Gardona, a onetime Border Patrol agent with an unblemished record, would forsake his sworn duty and join with the ”coyotes,“ the smugglers who were his official quarry.

Considering the paltry figures involved, money doesn’t seem to tell the whole story. Nor need we accept the explanation offered by Gardona and his attorney, that he was ”moved by the plight“ of the immigrants he had arrested and sold them off to help them avoid deportation.

What seems apparent from the facts of his case is that Gardona fell into corruption incrementally, first doing favors for informants, then becoming their accomplice. Along the way, with the autonomy he earned over his years in the field, Gardona came to assume the role of final arbiter in deciding the fate of those people who fell under his control. To follow his path is to glimpse the underside of Los Angeles -- a world of fear, extortion and indentured servitude.

FBI Special Agent Ronald Twersky spent 10 months investigating Gardona‘s case, speaking to his accomplices and to the people he ransomed and their families. As Twersky described in an affidavit for a search warrant filed last May, the nexus for Gardona’s ransom racket was an auto-body shop in East L.A. owned by a Mexican immigrant named Jose Jesus Quintanilla-Guzman. Frequented by gang members and operated without a license, the body shop doubled as a ”chop shop,“ where stolen cars were broken down or modified and re-sold, and also as a staging base for a cocaine-distribution ring with connections in Chicago, Denver, Seattle and Las Vegas.

Quintanilla‘s criminal record shows more than 10 arrests in Los Angeles County since 1986, another arrest in Las Vegas, and a federal conviction on November 15, 1990, for drug trafficking. Quintanilla also was deported twice, once in 1993 and again in 1995.

Gardona was introduced to Quintanilla by Arturo Munoz Olivares, another Mexican immigrant, who grew up with Quintanilla in the state of Zacatecas. Olivares’ son Jorge worked as a courier in Quintanilla‘s drug operation, and was ”one of about 10 young men who have gone to prison for their work for Quintanilla,“ according to the affidavit. Olivares himself has two felony convictions, one from 1996 and another in 1998.

In L.A., Olivares employed undocumented immigrants as pushcart vendors selling popsicles in the barrios of the Eastside. Known as ”El Gordo,“ Spanish for ”The Fat One,“ with his weight estimated at more than 400 pounds, Olivares was another regular at Quintanilla’s chop shop.

Olivares protected his business by cultivating ties to Agent Gardona. According to Gardona, Olivares would occasionally tip him off to drop houses where immigrants were stashed after their arrival in Los Angeles. In return, Gardona ignored Olivares‘ routine use of illegal vendors. At the same time, Olivares represented himself to newly arrived immigrants as an INS official. According to one confidential informant, he also provided them with immigration documents that later proved to be fraudulent.

As their relationship progressed, Olivares introduced Gardona to Quintanilla, who in turn also provided Gardona with information on drop houses. The circle was closed when Gardona approached Quintanilla for a loan. He had started two side businesses, one operating vending machines and another running public pay phones. When Quintanilla loaned Gardona more than $20,000 to purchase more machines, the snitch was elevated to partner.

According to one employee of the chop shop interviewed by the FBI’s Twersky, Gardona often visited the East L.A. body shop, and on at least one occasion offered gang members who hung out there $500 apiece for stolen pay phones. Quintanilla openly bragged about his association with the federal agent, even suggesting that if things ever got ”too hot“ in the drug business, he could draft Gardona as a courier, ”because Gardona had a badge and the police would not suspect him.“

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