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Earlier this month, a teacher from a charter school in El Paso, Texas walked free from a Mexican prison. She'd been caught with a hundred pounds of marijuana in her car trunk as she drove into the U.S. from Mexico. She was facing 20 years in prison for drug smuggling. But then U.S. law enforcement officials came up with evidence proving that she was a victim - a victim of a new scheme to move narcotics across the border. NPR's Jason Beaubien has her story.
JASON BEAUBIEN: The nightmare for Ana Isela Martinez began here in the stalled traffic approaching the bridge that crosses from Juarez into El Paso.
Ms. ANA ISELA MARTINEZ (Teacher): I got to the checkpoint that is permanently there with the military officers. They asked me to pull over. And they also asked me to open my trunk.
BEAUBIEN: Martinez, who lives in Juarez, was commuting as she did each school morning with her six-year-old daughter to El Paso.�Mexican soldiers were randomly stopping cars on the Mexican side of the bridge.
Because she crossed daily into the U.S., Martinez had applied for a SENTRI pass from the Department of Homeland Security.�Pass holders must submit to a rigorous background check. In exchange, they can use the SENTRI Express Lane at the border, where travelers generally are processed much faster.
SENTRI users also must keep their personally belongings visible to the customs agents.�So on her morning commutes, Martinez says she never put anything in her trunk.
Ms. MARTINEZ: So when I saw the two suitcases in my trunk, I thought it was like a bad dream. I thought this is not real. This is not happening to me. Of course, you know already that something bad is inside.
BEAUBIEN: Inside was more than 100 pounds of marijuana. Martinez was sent straight to a Mexican jail. Members of her church and co-workers protested outside the Juarez prison where she was being held. But the case against Martinez appeared extremely strong. Mexican prosecutors ratcheted up the charges against her from possession of marijuana to intent to export narcotics.
Unknown to her on the U.S. side of the bridge FBI agents were closing in on a marijuana smuggling ring headed by two men, Jesus Chavez and Carlos Gomez. A spokesman for the FBI in El Paso declined to discuss the case because its ongoing but a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court details the investigation. Eight days after Martinez was arrested, an FBI informant wearing a wire met with Carlos Gomez at a steakhouse in El Paso. According to a transcript of the recording filed in federal court, Gomez complains that the arrest of Martinez has messed up his smuggling operation. But Martinez remained held without bail at the Juarez prison known as El Cereso.
Ms. MARTINEZ: The only information I had about El Cereso was what you see on TV, movies you have seen and you see that when you get there its all about violence. As time went on however, the 35-year-old mother of two resigned herself to prison life and started offering English classes to other inmates.
A few miles away across the Rio Grande, the FBI determined that Chavez and Gomez were using lookouts to monitor the SENTRI Express Lane at the border. The lookout identified targets with regular commutes who primarily drove Ford vehicles. On the FBI recording, Gomez is heard saying hed been tracking Martinezs 2003 Ford Focus for almost a year.
Ms. MARTINEZ: Im a person who likes to do the same thing, every day at the same time.
BEAUBIEN: Gomez, the alleged trafficker, praised Martinez's routine as like a clock. According to the FBI affidavit, the smugglers would follow their targets and get the Vehicle Identification Number. Then a corrupt locksmith with access to Fords vehicle database would make a duplicate key. Keys in hand, the gang would put drugs in the car at night in Mexico and then pick up their shipment from the parked vehicle the next morning in Texas.
Martinez had been in jail for more than a month and it looked like she might remain there for years, and then the FBI filed a criminal complaint in U.S. District Court detailing exactly how Chavez and Gomez were targeting SENTRI pass holders. All charges against Martinez were dropped. She calls it a miracle.
Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol say they arent making any changes to the SENTRI pass program as a result of this smuggling scheme. They do however, remind users that the program is not a free pass across the border and all vehicles coming into the U.S. remain subject to search.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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