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The Architect And The Opera Singer: A Tale Of Two Drug Mules

Audio

Aired 12/19/12

LISTEN TO THE STORY: The Architect and the Opera Singer

— 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.

Video

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."

Document

Complaint Against Velazquez

Complaint Against Velazquez

Complaint Against Velazquez

Document

Defense Sentencing Memo

Defense Sentencing Memo

Defense Sentencing Memo: Vazquez

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?"

Comments

Avatar for user 'Tijuanense'

Tijuanense | December 21, 2012 at 4:46 p.m. ― 1 year, 10 months ago

I'm Sorry but it's hard to believe the Architect's story,for all we know he might have built one o two tunnel's for the Mexican drug Cartel's, im not trying to be Sarcastic but it's a sad The way Mexican society and Tijuana's society in this cases accept's and look's up to the narco culture it's an embracement of the narco-culture usually the ones who can afford to build and pay in full for their very luxurious and expensive homes(of course there is honest people in Mexico that can do it too, but very often is Cartel Narcos that build homes and more so in Border Cities) is Cartel Narcos and Corrupt politicians and architects are the ones who have to embrace those ties to get that work, its not an excuse, for it's all about self morals ,so when they accept to build homes for Narco's they embrace that Narcoculture and unfortunately they willingly become involved with the Cartels ,.....no if's or but's almost everyone in Tijuana knows of someone that works for a Narco or is doing work for a Narco or has a friend involved in drugs-distribuion or real state realtor's that sell to the narcos or even a near or distant family member thats involved in the Narco is brutally and painfully true,its the Mexican Culture i repeat the Mexican culture that is why i dont believe the architect nor the opera singer ,they in my eyes .......are the biggest problem that Mexico has .............Mexico's culture has to change .........to a higher Ground.

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Avatar for user 'realtijuana_blogspot'

realtijuana_blogspot | December 22, 2012 at 3:47 p.m. ― 1 year, 10 months ago

On one hand, it's important to take a broad view of smuggling if we are to avoid dismissing this as yet another problem exclusive to Mexico. We should bear in mind that, during the previous U.S. Prohibition, actors were given similar choices between plomo y plata (lead or silver) and yet those actors were typically members of the U.S.'s own law enforcement and judiciary. It's unlikely we'll ever know to what extent any particular actor was a victim and to what extent a volunteer. But we can be sure that the quandary presents itself wherever a vice is criminalized – it's not a cultural thing, it's just human nature.

On the other hand, the difference in Melchor's and Velázquez's sentences might have had more to do with who they are than with the difference in judicial venue. Melchor is a socially marginalized character while Velázquez is closely associated with the temporal and spiritual lords of Tijuana. The architect's public buildings are controversial because they are put up without public consensus and without competitive bidding. His masters want things to be that way. It is therefore entirely likely that his masters were moving behind the scenes to get him a reduced sentence. They need him back at work soon to break ground on their ghastly Zócalo project.

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Avatar for user 'Mmikey'

Mmikey | December 24, 2012 at 1:04 p.m. ― 1 year, 10 months ago

Next time gps tag the suspect vehicle and go after as many persons involved
in the distribution system.

or add some poison to the drugs and send them on their way.

stupid drug users will die off more rapidly, or be afraid to take a chance on what drugs are "safe" and which are not.

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