TUCSON, Ariz. -- Two Arizona border agents were convicted on Friday of violating the civil rights of four suspected drug smugglers by making them eat marijuana, burning their shoes and sweatshirts, then forcing them to flee barefoot into the desert on a chilly autumn night.
One of the agents, Dario Castillo, faces up to 10 years for each of four felony counts of civil rights violations. The other, Ramon Zuniga, convicted of the same charges as misdemeanors, faces up to a year in prison for each count.
But the jury, after a two-week federal trial, acquitted the pair of conspiring to commit the crimes and acquitted Castillo, 25, of witness tampering over accusations he had asked a fellow agent to lie about what he saw the night of the encounter.
On the night in question in 2008, Castillo and Zuniga answered a radio call for assistance shortly after midnight from a horse patrol officer who had spotted a group of suspected marijuana smugglers, Castillo's attorney Michael Bloom said during closing arguments.
The two agents, who were suspended after the incident, went to a dry creek bed a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, where they found the suspected smugglers asleep. Most fled into the night when the flashlight-wielding agents arrived.
Four men - all Mexican citizens in the United States illegally - were captured, and the agents recovered 21 bundles of marijuana worth more than $600,000, according to testimony from a Border Patrol training officer from Castillo and Zuniga's station.
Zuniga, 31, and Castillo then forced the four suspected smugglers to kneel and chew small handfuls of marijuana, and Castillo started a fire to burn their outer clothing, shoes, food and backpacks and ordered them to flee, all four testified.
The men testified that they spent a night in the desert where temperatures were 50 Fahrenheit (10 Celsius) and the next day were caught by tribal police on the Tohono O'odham Nation. They first said they had been robbed by bandits, but once back in Border Patrol custody accused the agents of the abuses.
"This verdict sends a clear message that abuse of authority by federal law enforcement officers will not be tolerated in our society," U.S. Attorney for Arizona John Leonardo said in a statement.
Castillo's attorney, Bloom, said in his closing argument that the admitted acts of the agents warranted punishment - perhaps firing - but not federal convictions.
U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps scheduled sentencing for July 1.
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.