Judge orders release of Border Patrol agent in drug case
April 11, 2011 3:56 PM
BY JAMES GILBERT - SUN STAFF WRITER
A federal judge has agreed to release on his own recognizance the
Yuma Sector Border Patrol agent who was arrested earlier this month
after marijuana was found in his patrol vehicle.
After a lengthy hearing Monday morning, U.S. Magistrate Jay Irwin
released Michael Atondo from custody until his trial, provided he
abide by the standard conditions of release, such as refraining from
possessing a firearm, not leaving the state, surrendering his travel
documents, not consuming alcohol or unauthorized narcotics and not
violating any federal state or local laws.
"I don't think the defendant is going to run. If he does it, will be
the most foolish thing he could do, other than the crime he has been
accused of," Irwin said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Uhl had argued that Atondo should
remain in custody, calling him a flight risk and a danger to the
community, especially given his training as a Border Patrol agent,
noting he is facing five to 40 years in prison if convicted.
"He is accused of a crime that tarnishes the image of a federal law
enforcement agency," Uhl argued. "How much more dangerous is it when
the drug smuggler is a Border Patrol agent, in a town like Yuma,
where the Border Patrol is a respected federal law enforcement agency?"
The family has hired Yuma attorney John Minore to represent Atondo.
He is also being represented by an attorney from the Border Patrol
"Did he stray to the dark side? We don't know," Minore said. "He has
only been accused of a crime, he has not been convicted."
Uhl told the court that new details have emerged in the case since
the pretrial release report was originally written, including
information that Atondo had traveled to Mexico four times in the past
year with someone who was associated with someone else who has known
He also told the court that Atondo had bought a $26,000 boat, which
he paid for in cash, and that his wife had recently emptied all the
money from their bank account. Uhl said Atondo, who worked as a
corrections officer for seven years prior to joining the Border
Patrol, is said to have 30 weapons at his home, which he had acquired
over the years.
"That is not a collection in his hands, that is an arsenal," Uhl said.
Another point Uhl raised in arguing against Atondo's release was that
a Facebook friend of Atondo's admitted to his boss after Atondo's
arrest that he expected to be arrested also because he was holding
money for Atondo. That friend, Uhl later said, according to his
parents, has since disappeared to Mexico and was last seen with a
In addition to having a brother who is currently incarcerated on drug-
related charges and has ties to the Mexican Mafia, Uhl said Atondo
appears to have been a mole who infiltrated the Border Patrol with
the intent to smuggle drugs.
Atondo's next court appearance is a status hearing for Thursday in
U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
According to the criminal complaint filed against him, 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.
The arrest happened about 30-40 miles east of the U.S. Port of Entry
at San Luis, Ariz., after the agents found what turned out to be 745
pounds of marijuana stacked in his marked Border Patrol truck. 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
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.
James Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6854.