Arizona border patrol agents guilty of civil rights crimes against marijuana smugglers


Jim Greenhill via Flickr.

In southwestern Arizona, along a lonely stretch of Highway 86, lay the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation and the tiny village of Pisinemo. The village itself, home to only about 250 full-time desert-dwelling residents, is actually known by the locals as Pisin Mo’o (or Buffalo Head), but somebody at the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division blew it when they made the road signs, forever giving it the bastardized version now in use.
It was on the western edge of Pisinemo, on a cold fall night four years ago, on November 12, 2008, where U.S. Border Patrol Agents Dario Castillo (25) and Ramon Zuniga (31) finally caught up to the prey that they had been hunting throughout the night, a group of four suspected drug smugglers. The four men were suspected to be in the country illegally, part of a larger group of smugglers that had scattered earlier in the night, leaving behind an alleged $600,000 worth of weed.

At one point, one of the agents allegedly asked the men if they “liked marijuana”. Apparently, at least three of the four gave the wrong answer by admitting their love for the ganja, so in a SuperTroopers-meets-ZeroDarkThirty scene in the middle of the southwest American desert, Agents Castillo and Zuniga stripped their captives of most of their clothing, burned it, and then literally force fed their handcuffed captives fistfuls of weed, no doubt giddy and giggling like Deputy Farva the entire time.
Done with their hazing, the Agents didn’t arrest the men, or detain them to begin their official deportation process, but instead sent them walking southbound back to Mexico on a chilly November night with only a fraction of the clothing they began their journey with – including no shoes or socks.
The four men never made it back to Mexico. They were re-captured the following morning by Tohono O’odham Tribal Police, and raised enough hell so that Agents Castillo and Zuniga were placed on suspension and an investigation soon followed.
Authorities found that, indeed, the two Agents had abused their power on that November night in 2008, and in April of this year a Federal Grand Jury in Tucson found both agents guilty of violating the civil rights of the men they had tormented.
This week, Castillo and Zuniga were sentenced to two years each in Federal Prison, followed by 3 years of supervised probation, though their charges varied. Castillo’s convictions were felonies, while Zuniga got off with misdemeanors for his role that night.
The difference?
Castillo started the fire that they used to burn the men’s clothing. The “use of fire” was enough to bump his convictions up to felonies. A rational person might think that stuffing buds down a man’s throat, stealing his shoes, and marching him blindly through the desert would be felony-worthy on its own, but I guess not in Arizona.
Castillo’s lawyer said that his client isn’t “motivated by people who enter the country illegally”, but instead acted the way he did based on his opposition to “illegal drugs”. A Border patrol Agent who isn’t “motivated” by illegal immigration, but instead wants to play drug warrior…great. Zuniga’s lawyer took a different angle and sought sympathy for his client by saying that he only lost his composure because of rumors of armed smugglers in the area at the time.
Still seeming to assign blame to the true victims of the night in question, Zuniga told the courtroom, “I allowed these individuals to get the best of me that night. I’ve regretted those actions every single day for the past five years.”
Well, he gets at least five more years to ponder it. Zuniga and Castillo have a new set of orders, orders to report to Federal Prison by January 14th.