Man Convicted in Mexico-US Pot Smuggling Scheme That Ensnared Innocent Drivers Gets 20 Years

A Texas man allegedly involved in a cross-border marijuana-smuggling scheme that resulted in Mexican criminal charges against several upstanding drivers whose vehicles were used without their knowledge to smuggle the pot has been sentenced to a 20-year prison term.

Jesus Chavez, 38, also must pay $140,000 in restitution to his victims as part of his sentence Monday in federal court in El Paso, KVIA, a local ABC affiliate, reports.

They include a private school teacher and a doctor who were reportedly jailed in Mexico on drug charges in 2011 before it eventually became clear that the drugs had been planted in their vehicles’ trunks and the cases against them were dismissed. The El Paso Times and another KVIA article provide background about the cases initially brought against these innocent defendants.

The drug-smuggling scheme, as another El Paso Times article explains, targeted as “blind mules” drivers who regularly used the express lane to commute between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso to attend school or to work, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit. These drivers’ vehicle identification numbers would be obtained, presumably while the cars were parked, and the VINs were then used to obtain duplicate keys from a Texas locksmith that were distributed to participants in the scheme in both the U.S. and Mexico.

With the duplicate keys, those involved unlocked the trunks of the targets’ vehicles, put marijuana inside and then, once the drivers had crossed the border, unlocked the trunks and retrieved the marijuana, the agent states. Participants in the scheme, which was allegedly orchestrated by Chavez and another Mexican citizen who is now a fugitive, reportedly expressed concern in recorded phone calls about at least one of their unwitting victims jailed by Mexican police.

It isn’t clear from the articles how many others may have been victimized as unknowing mules in the drug-smuggling scheme besides teacher Ana Isela Martinez Amaya and Dr. Justus Lawrence Opot.

However, Opot’s co-worker, who was riding in his car with him to work that day, was also arrested and eventually released by Mexican authorities. And on the American side, another innocent victim, James Ivan Diaz, was tried and acquitted by a jury, according to the FBI agent’s affidavit, after reportedly being found by U.S. customs officers to have duffel bags full of marijuana in his trunk. At least three of these four victims are U.S. citizens.

Officials in Mexico credited the FBI with investigating the case and urged drivers to check their trunks before driving across the border.

A Department of Justice press release provides additional details about Chavez’ sentence. He pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to import more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, during a period of a little over one year in 2010 and 2011.

Related coverage:

CNN: “‘Blind mules’ unknowingly ferry drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border”

El Paso Times: “Man, 37, gets $20,000 bond in drug-trafficking car case”

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