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Judge to sentence U.S. border cops who made smugglers eat pot

A Border Patrol Agent looks over to Mexico from the US side of the international border near Calexico, California, adjacent to the Mexican border town of Mexicali, November 3, 2009. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
A Border Patrol Agent looks over to Mexico from the US side of the international border near Calexico, California, adjacent to the Mexican border town of Mexicali, November 3, 2009. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Brad Poole

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Two U.S. Border Patrol agents who forced four suspected drug smugglers to chew marijuana and flee shoeless into the Arizona desert on a chilly November night are due to be sentenced on Tuesday for violating the men's civil rights.

A jury convicted Dario Castillo, 25, and Ramon Zuniga, 31, in April of depriving the Mexican men, all of whom were in the U.S. illegally, of civil rights in the incident in the borderland deserts of southern Arizona.

The 2008 incident began when a Border Patrol agent mounted on horseback discovered a group of men sleeping in a dry stream bed in the desert, which straddles a key corridor for Mexican traffickers smuggling drugs and illegally ferrying immigrants into the United States.

Castillo and Zuniga were about to end their shift after midnight, according to testimony, when they got a call for assistance from the horse patrol. They responded, but the group of about 20 suspected smugglers scattered into the night when the agents arrived.

Four men were captured and stripped of their shoes and jackets, which is normal procedure for agents maintaining control of multiple suspects. But then the men's belongings were thrown into a small fire and both agents forced them to chew handfuls of marijuana, the court heard.

The men were then told to flee into the desert, shoeless and without jackets, on a night when the temperature hovered around 50 F (10 C). They were captured the next morning by tribal police from the Tohono O'odham Nation.

The unidentified men initially said they had been robbed by bandits, but after they were transferred to Border Patrol custody, they accused Castillo and Zuniga of the abuses.

Castillo, who witnesses said lit the fire, burned the belongings and ordered the men to flee, was convicted of four felony counts of depriving civil rights. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison for each count.

Zuniga, meanwhile, was convicted of four misdemeanor counts, each of which carries a maximum term of one year in prison.

Some 21 bundles of marijuana valued at more than $600,000 were recovered when the smugglers fled. The captured immigrants were never charged, and all were eventually deported.

The sentencing is scheduled before U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps in Tucson on Tuesday morning.

(Editing by Tim Gaynor, Cynthia Johnston and Andrew Hay)

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