On the Take 

INS special agent convicted of smuggling immigrants for $300

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000

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The vending and telephone businesses apparently failed to return much on Gardona‘s investment, because he soon had to resort to other means to pay off the debt. The currency he settled on was pollos, Spanish for ”chickens,“ the street term for those smuggled illegally into the country. On at least two occasions documented by the FBI, the first in the summer of 1998, Gardona provided Quintanilla with batches of more than 10 immigrants rounded up from stash houses by the INS.

According to an informant inside Quintanilla’s operation, the pollos were escorted by ”Gardona and two other plainclothes men wearing guns and law-enforcement badges.“ The delivery from the INS was made in Gardona‘s white van. Quintanilla paid Gardona cash on the spot -- $300 apiece -- for the immigrants, and then set about contacting their U.S.-based relatives to arrange for ransom. Quintanilla demanded $1,000 to $1,500 each, plus airfare.

The informant said he inquired what would happen to the immigrants who could not come up with the money. He was told they’d be put to work selling ice cream for El Gordo. As for the immigrants themselves, it was never clear to them who was in authority. One Quintanilla associate believed that Olivares, El Gordo, was an INS agent. In the end it didn‘t much matter: For the pollos, the payoffs in Los Angeles were just another bribe to be paid on the long trek from Central America.

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These weren’t the only incidents by which investigators learned of illegal associations between Gardona and Quintanilla. In one case, a source reported that Gardona provided Quintanilla with three female immigrants, whom Quintanilla then passed on to work as dancers for a friend who operates a downtown club. Gardona later dropped by the chop shop and passed around photographs of the three women striking poses in the nude. Gardona also reportedly intervened when Quintanilla‘s brother was captured by the INS in Arizona.

Gardona’s underground connections came to light when Quintanilla, the trafficker in immigrants, cocaine and stolen cars, was himself caught trying to slip across the border. The bust was made in June of 1999 by border guards in San Ysidro. When they learned that Quintanilla was in fact a Mexican citizen, Quintanilla advised them that he worked as an informant for Gardona.

Soon after, the Department of Justice added cocaine trafficking to the charges against Quintanilla. By July, a Quintanilla courier began cooperating with the government, and disclosed Gardona‘s activities in detail. That same month, an assistant U.S. attorney informed the FBI of concerns about Gardona, and a full investigation was initiated.

On July 10, 2000, Quintanilla pleaded guilty to importing cocaine and was sentenced to 20 years in federal custody. Gardona was indicted on May 18, 2000, and pleaded guilty in September.

Gardona will learn his fate when he is sentenced next week, but as with the LAPD and Rafael Perez, the case could have continuing ramifications for the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and for the INS. The case has already had a distinct impact on the future of a Latino travel agent named Alfonso Chicas-Montejo.

A native of Guatemala who maintains legal residency in the U.S., Chicas ran afoul of the law after providing plane tickets for a batch of pollos who were taken into custody by Gardona. Chicas claimed he did not know the ticket-holders were in the country illegally, but he was charged as a co-conspirator in a smuggling operation. Gardona was the lead investigator in the case, and asserted that Chicas was a co-conspirator.

By the time Chicas went on trial in January 2000, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eliott Krieger, was already aware that Gardona was under investigation. Yet Krieger allowed Gardona to play a central role in the case, sitting at his side in the courtroom and handling the witnesses, each of them immigrants whom Gardona had arrested -- and some of whom he had ransomed to Quintanilla.

Chicas was convicted, but appealed the verdict after Gardona was indicted. Last month, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson found that the prosecution had been compromised, and set a new trial for December 26.

To Chicas’ attorney, Daniel Aragon, the decision to keep Gardona on the case represents a clear case of prosecutorial misconduct. ”They knew he was under investigation, and they still let him direct the case,“ Aragon said in an interview. He said the U.S. Attorney‘s Office should have dropped its prosecution of Chicas, a father of four who adamantly maintains his innocence. ”They’re not interested in justice,“ Aragon said of the prosecutors. ”They‘re in the business of getting convictions.“

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