By Sarah Womer | Published in The Yuma Sun
Details are emerging in the case of Michael Atondo, the Yuma Sector Border Patrol agent arrested this week with marijuana in his patrol vehicle.
According to the criminal complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, two agents responding to an activated sensor found Atondo at the border fence. Alerted by his unusual actions, the agents eventually asked to search Atondo’s vehicle, where they discovered bundles of marijuana.
Atondo is facing a federal charge of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. He made his initial appearance at the U.S. federal courthouse in Yuma on Wednesday.
Atondo was arrested Monday by Drug Enforcement Agency agents after 745.6 pounds of marijuana were discovered in his marked Border Patrol truck. According to the criminal complaint, the arrest happened along the Mexico-U.S. border, about 30-40 miles east of the U.S. Port of Entry at San Luis, Ariz.
As the two Border Patrol agents approached the area, they found a Border Patrol vehicle backed up against the eastern edge of the fence that marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The vehicle’s rear door was open.
According to the complaint, at the end of the border fence is an open area, large enough for an individual to walk back and forth between the two countries.
One of the agents thought it was unusual that the unit had not responded to the activated sensor, since it was closer to the area.
As the two agents approached, they found two Jeep Cherokees parked in Mexico, and a person running west from the two vehicles, which were also backed up to the point where the border fence ends.
Atondo at this point emerged from the parked Border Patrol vehicle with his service weapon drawn and pointed at the individual who was running away. Two other people in Mexico then jumped into the Cherokees and drove them southbound, farther into Mexico, the complaint states.
Atondo told the two agents that two more people had run eastward, toward a hill, and jumped in his vehicle to pursue them. However, the two agents had a clear view of the area, and did not see two people.
The agents followed Atondo and asked if something was wrong, the complaint states. They noted that Atondo seemed very nervous, and neither agent could understand what Atondo was trying to verbally communicate with them. However, according to the complaint, one agent managed to understand that Atondo claimed to be searching for a flashlight he had lost the previous day.
One of the agents asked if Atondo had called for any backup, to which Atondo said he had been unable to initiate contact on his radio.
One of the agents noticed that Atondo’s nametape was missing from his uniform, which the agent thought was unusual as he had noticed Atondo was wearing it that morning.
The two agents continued to follow Atondo due to his unusual actions, and then one of the agents contacted a supervisor for assistance.
One of the agents confronted Atondo and asked for permission to search his vehicle. At that point, the agent found orderly stacks of marijuana in the back of Atondo’s vehicle.
Atondo began to pace nervously back and forth, then retrieved his body armor and put it on, according to the complaint.
When the supervisory agent arrived, Atondo stated he was looking for a flashlight he had lost three days earlier, which was inconsistent with his previous statement to the two agents, the complaint said.
The supervisory agent also noted there were inconsistencies with the footsteps at the scene. He also noted it was strange that the suspected smugglers or illegal aliens described by Atondo were not frightened or startled by Atondo’s presence, and did not flee until the second Border Patrol vehicle arrived.
According to the complaint, Atondo had made repeated requests to be assigned to the area known as “The Line,” which is directly adjacent to the international border and where the events in question took place. Atondo had actually been assigned to work in the “Lower Area” several miles away from “The Line.”
Upon questioning later that day by DEA special agents, Atondo said he was en route to his assigned duty post when he noticed the activation of a sensor in a nearby area, so he left his post to investigate.
According to the complaint, Atondo said he climbed a small hill in the area and noticed the two vehicles parked near the fence. He said he found the bundles of marijuana stacked at the edge of the fence on the north and south side of the fence. He checked for more people, then returned to his vehicle and loaded the bundles into it.
Atondo then said that as he was loading the bundles, he heard an additional USBP vehicle approaching. At that time, he also noted unidentified individuals in the area on the Mexico side of the international boundary. As the second USBP vehicle approached, the unidentified individuals fled southbound and westbound.
Atondo said he alerted the two agents to the fleeing individuals, then got in his vehicle to check for additional subjects in the area. Then, Atondo said he turned his vehicle around, met with the two agents, and returned to the initial area. He then told one of the agents he found bundles of marijuana, which were in his USBP vehicle.
It was determined at Atondo’s hearing Wednesday that the case will be transferred to the U.S. District Court of Arizona in Phoenix.
Atondo is temporarily being held in federal custody until his detention hearing in Yuma next week.