Mar 27

San Ysidro, California, Baja Border:

Smuggling nets border inspector prison
Border inspector Richard Elizalda, who admitted he allowed hundreds of illegal immigrants to pass through his lane at the San Ysidro crossing because he fell in love with a smuggler, was sentenced yesterday to 57 months in federal prison.His lawyer told the judge of Elizalda’s hardships as an abused child, his military service and the loneliness that led him to start the love affair that led to his demise. Then Elizalda apologized to U.S. District Judge Larry Burns and to the nation in a brief statement.

“I know I did something wrong,” he said, his voice shaking with emotion, some of his words unintelligible. “I let my family down and I let the United States down – the people of the United States – and I’m sorry. I apologize for what I did, and I’m ready to pay my sentence.”

Before pronouncing the sentence, Burns said he was impressed with Elizalda’s service in the Marines during the Vietnam War, but said he was disturbed by the serious nature of the crime.

“You’re the gatekeeper for the security of the United States, and you totally abdicated that role,” Burns said. “It was a terrible, terrible thing. The shame of all this is, despite this record of service to your country, you’re forever going to be known as a corrupt official.”

According to federal guidelines, Elizalda, 56, had faced 46 to 57 months in custody. Burns said he imposed the harshest sentence to deter others.

Elizalda, a Customs and Border Protection officer since 1993, was indicted by a federal grand jury June 2, 2006, and arrested a few days later. He pleaded guilty Sept. 14 to three counts of bribery and two counts of bringing in illegal aliens for financial gain.

Elizalda admitted allowing hundreds of illegal immigrants to come through his lane from 2004 to June 2006 for $70,000 to $120,000 in payments. His lawyer said Elizalda used most of the money to buy jewelry and a 2005 BMW for his girlfriend and fellow smuggler, Raquel Arin, who recently was sentenced to 30 months in prison for her part in the smuggling operation. Arin’s lawyer has said the two were just friends.

In court documents, Elizalda’s lawyer, Eugene Iredale, said his client was living alone, separated from his second wife, during a time of “depression and doubt.”

It was then that Arin and another woman, Perla Centella, passed through his line at the port of entry, “repeatedly flirting with him and trying to begin a personal relationship,” Iredale wrote. Centella was eventually sentenced to 36 months in prison.

Elizalda fell in love with Arin, and as a result allowed her friends and relatives to drive through his lane unimpeded.

He used proceeds from the smuggling to buy Arin a 1-carat diamond solitaire ring, a diamond-encrusted Tiffany pendant and a Louis Vuitton watch.

While the smuggling was under way, Elizalda, who lives in Chula Vista, was drinking heavily, and became so consumed with feelings for Arin that he had liposuction and cosmetic surgery “to try to make himself look younger and more appealing to her,” Iredale said.

Elizalda used text messaging on a cell phone to indicate which lane he would be working and when, prosecutors said.

Elizalda was one of two border inspectors accused of corruption at the border crossings during a similar time period. Michael Gilliland, was sentenced last month to five years in federal prison and fined $200,000 for allowing hundreds of illegal immigrants to pass through at the Otay Mesa crossing in exchange for cash.

Kelly Thornton: (619) 542-4571

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