Big Stories

The Making Of A Mole

Homeland Security agent Jovana Deas was torn between a burgeoning career in federal law enforcement and a family with ties to a notorious Mexican drug cartel. Was her betrayal of the agency a failure of character or of a system she should have never been part of in the first place?


The news came on one of those July days when the air is soupy and still. It had been a busy month for the agents at the Homeland Security Investigations office near Nogales, Arizona. July is when marijuana plants begin to flower and the bounty is taken across the U.S. border in every imaginable way — by truck, by plane, by people crossing on foot. The agents hoped to identify the major smugglers and their routes before September, when the harvest begins. But everything changed when Agent Jesus Lozanía learned from two of his most trustworthy sources that the Sinaloa cartel had obtained a list of all of the branch’s informants.

His sources believed that the cartel was planning a trip across the border to round up the individuals on the list. They had hung up quickly and refused to meet in person, fearful that the cartel was tracking them. Lozanía issued an emergency memo with the little information he had. Agents hit the phones, contacting each informant to see if they had been threatened or followed. There were hundreds of calls to make.

There was no time to investigate how this list was obtained, but the answer was obvious: The cartel had successfully recruited an informant of its own. HSI is obsessive about protecting its sources — without them, border security would consist of inspecting trucks and sifting through luggage at random. When a new informant is recruited, his full name and contact information are typewritten on special-issued index cards that have to be requested from Homeland Security headquarters in D.C. The cards are stored in safes; the safes are stored in a backroom secured with a combination code known to only a few agents at a time. Theirs was a small office, with only 30 agents and three investigative assistants, who were often tasked with typing the information onto the cards. One of them must have combed through the safes and collated all of the names.

Working with colleagues without trusting them has become a part of the job for an HSI agent; there are too many incidents of agents turned by Mexican cartels not to operate with some degree of suspicion. HSI is the investigative wing of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — or ICE — the second-largest law enforcement agency in the United States, outsized only by Customs and Border Protection. Between these two agencies, both of which fall under the Department of Homeland Security and are charged with protecting the borders and enforcing customs and immigration laws, there are more than 2,000 pending corruption or misconduct cases, and the number of cases initiated each year has increased exponentially, from 385 in 2004 to 870 in 2010. There are now so many that the FBI has had to double the number of Border Corruption Task Forces to investigate them all.

The agents spent seven long days trying to gather more information about the list, attempting to establish contact with each of their difficult-to-reach informants without putting them at risk. It was a frenetic week for everyone, but particularly for Special Agent Jovana Samaniego Deas. Most of the informants were Spanish speakers, and Jovana, one of only five bilingual agents in the office, was frequently called upon to translate. “Every time she was approached to help out another agent, she was readily available,” recalled Agent Lozanía. This was typical of Jovana. She was a hard worker, quiet and dignified. She had a wide, gentle smile, and her dark hair was always gathered in a firm, practical bun. She was built like a fighter — tall and noble. She was not timid.

Jovana had enlisted with Customs and Border Protection one year out of college. Most of her colleagues were career soldiers who missed the adrenaline rush of combat or policemen who grew bored of neighborhood patrols. They were the type to invoke the phrase “war on drugs” frequently and proudly. Jovana, however, had grown up in Agua Prieta, a Mexican border town, and could not be seduced by the roguishness of life on the border. She had no interest spending after-work hours at a bar — a revered tradition known as “choir practice.”

Jovana’s colleagues had initially regarded her with suspicion: Her maiden name, Samaniego, carried villainous associations — the Samaniegos had been a notorious drug family in Agua Prieta, and people wondered if Jovana had a family connection she was hiding. She eventually earned her co-workers’ respect by simply being better at their jobs than they were. As a customs inspector, she won an award every few months, and within a few years, she was promoted to special agent at ICE. Jovana knew people from Agua Prieta with ties to the drug industry, giving her access to well-connected informants. Her background was a competitive advantage, not a red flag.

Months later, Agent Lozanía pressed the two informants who had originally told him about the list and the cartel’s plans for revenge. An investigation was still ongoing, and he needed to know if the list was just an empty rumor being used to generate fear or if it was it actually out there. One of the informants, speaking under a polygraph, ensured Agent Lozanía that, yes, a list was circulating. It had been leaked, the source said, by a Hispanic female agent in the Nogales office. There was only one person who matched that description.

Jovana Samaniego Deas grew up on the border — in the most literal sense. The distance between her family’s home in Agua Prieta to the boundary of Arizona could be efficiently measured in feet. Today, Agua Prieta is a growing city, with colorful, low-slung buildings being constructed each week. It has sushi restaurants and nightclubs and plastic surgeons. People come from all over Mexico to visit its well-reputed laser ophthalmology clinic. Across the international line is Douglas, Arizona, a slow and dusty mountain town, tiny compared with Agua Prieta. Beyond Douglas are wide fields of bristly, pale grass freckled with cactuses and short, wispy trees. Tucson is two hours away.

But in 1979, when Jovana was born, Agua Prieta was a fledgling frontier town, with less than half the number of residents as there are today. Streets now lined with restaurants had not yet been paved. Mexico, at this point, served as the way station between drug producers in Colombia and buyers in the States, and that role brought only so much commerce. When Jovana’s mother suffered from labor complications, her doctor in Mexico sent her to Douglas, which had a more modern hospital. Jovana was born in Arizona, making her a U.S. citizen — the only one in her family. But even as an employee of the U.S. government, she could never totally renounce her loyalty to her family on the other side of the line.

When Jovana was growing up in the 1980s, there were only two big industries in Agua Prieta: assembly plants, or maquiladores, and the drug trade, and every family inevitably had members dabbling in both. Jovana’s father, Antonio, worked at the Mexican customs office, inspecting cars purchased abroad. He was known to accept bribes in exchange for letting cars pass into Mexico without inspection and was proactive about his side business — he frequently slept at his office, having found that the most lucrative bribes were procured at night. Antonio’s brother, Oscar, ran drugs. Antonio felt that there was an important moral distinction between working for the drug trade and profiting from it indirectly: When Jovana was very young, Oscar asked if he could keep one of his cars on Antonio’s property. Antonio refused. The brothers have hardly spoken since.

Antonio’s cousin, Manuel Samaniego, was 12 when he started hiking into the U.S. with small amounts of marijuana in a backpack. By the ’80s, Manuel oversaw what law enforcement characterized as Agua Prieta’s largest and most organized drug trafficking organization, shuttling hundreds of millions of dollars of cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. each month through underground tunnels. When Manuel was arrested in 1986, nine of his relatives took over the business. They called themselves “Los Tíos” — the Uncles. They tortured and assassinated their competitors, opened 23 different bank accounts throughout Arizona, and purchased guns, trucks, and vast stretches of property under the name Agua Prieta Importation Enterprises. They were an institution.

As was Manuel, remembered as being terrifying, sly, and generous. He escaped from prison in 1987 and then lived as a fugitive in Mexico. When a rival gang kidnapped his children shortly after his escape, Manuel rescued them from a heavily guarded house without a single bullet being shot. He was known to pick up medical bills and help out his friends when they couldn’t afford groceries or gas. Every winter, right before Christmas, a pickup truck would unload a heaping pile of children’s clothes, blankets, and food into Agua Prieta’s main plaza, a few blocks from the border. In the spring, the same truck would return with school supplies. Manuel was to thank for all of it.

Antonio was a highly protective father, warning his children to stay away from drugs and the people who sold them — in particular, Oscar and Manuel. Jovana was a quiet, obedient child, and a strong student. She would tote around her geography textbook and ask relatives to quiz her on its contents — she had memorized all the state capitals in the U.S. and Mexico. Her sister Dana, older by seven years, was just the opposite: rebellious, flirtatious, loud. Dana liked to party — cocaine was her drug of choice — and when she went out she would tease her hair to make it as dramatic and large as possible. As a teenager, Dana had pleaded with her parents to get a nose job. They eventually relented — Antonio often complained to his friends, half-jokingly, that his eldest daughter was a bully.

Jovana revered her sister. “My mother was old-fashioned, so certain things could not be brought up,” Jovana would later testify. “They were like, a taboo. So you would go to your sister, and she would tell me what I needed to know.” She loved to tag along with Dana and her friends, and when Dana wasn’t around, Jovana would spend weekend nights playing Ping-Pong.

Jovana says she realized at a young age that she wanted to work for the government, like her father. “Female officers always wore their hair up in a bun, and that’s how I liked to wear it when I was little,” she said.

When she finished high school, Jovana decided to take advantage of her birthright and move to the U.S. She stayed nearby, in Douglas — she didn’t want to move too far away from her family. In 1996, she enrolled at Cochise College, where she learned English and took classes in criminal justice and met Vincent Deas, who was from South Carolina, studying at Cochise’s pilot training program. They stayed together when Jovana moved to Phoenix to attend Arizona State University, where she graduated summa cum laude with a double major in psychology and criminal justice.

Meanwhile, Dana had moved to Mexico City and enlisted with the federal police. She rose up the ranks quickly; by 30, Dana had been named public minister — the administrative equivalent of a public prosecutor — in two border towns, Nogales and Reynosa. These were well-appointed positions; if you committed a crime and wanted to avoid charges, then it was best to stay on Dana’s good side. Chapo Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, allegedly sought out her friendship, according to someone who knew her at the time. Dana had a lucrative side practice, offering impunity and pocketing bribes. She connected with Uncle Oscar’s two sons, Oscar and Lito, whom she had hardly known growing up. Like their father, Oscar and Lito had gone into the drug trade, and Dana ensured that the authorities in Reynosa and Nogales left them to do their work.

But in 1998, Dana was dismissed from the police force. Her unit in Mexico City had beaten and raped a witness to a murder, trying to elicit a confession. They had even arrested the witness’s two young children and threatened to hold them in custody until she admitted to the crime. Jovana later swore that Dana had only been a bystander. “She told me she was part of the group, but she never touched that woman,” Jovana said.

Even so, Dana was barred from working for the government for five years. She moved to Juárez with members of her police unit, some of whom had connections to the cartel there. In Juárez, Dana fell in love with Miguel Mendoza, a former police officer who ferried drugs and money between Juárez and El Paso using two secret compartments in his Chevy Tahoe.

Jovana liked Miguel. He had a brotherly way: When Jovana’s parents expressed reservations about Vincent — they weren’t pleased that their daughter was dating an African-American — Miguel pushed them to keep an open mind. He and Dana bought Jovana a laptop so she wouldn’t have to spend late nights at the ASU computer lab. Jovana claims that she never understood how Dana and Miguel made their money, only that they had it to spend. Miguel bought a vintage 1938 Oldsmobile coupe and a new Gulfstream Ultra R.V., both of which he registered in Jovana’s name. He and Dana also purchased a million-dollar house in Juárez and a four-bedroom vacation home in El Paso, and took lavish vacations to Las Vegas and New Mexico. After Dana and Miguel married, they built an entire strip mall and starting renting out the various storefronts.

In 2002, while Jovana was still in school, she joined the two on a vacation to Las Vegas. Dana put aside $19,000 for the trip and deposited the money in Jovana’s Bank of America account in case the casinos didn’t accept Mexican credit cards — there were certain advantages to having a U.S. citizen and an English speaker in the family. They stayed at the Luxor; Dana and Miguel spent their vacation gambling while Jovana babysat their two young sons. In return, they bought Jovana a T-shirt from the gift shop. In her testimony, Jovana cast herself as the starry-eyed younger sister, oblivious to the warning signs. Dana had told her that Miguel came from a wealthy family, and Jovana had no reason to doubt her.

Jovana joined Customs and Border Protection in 2003. She was stationed at the port in Nogales, Arizona, a two-hour drive from Douglas. She searched cars, seized drugs, checked visas and turned away those who didn’t have one. Jovana was eager to rise the ranks, and Dana was equally eager to help her. “She would say she heard something in town. She would ask me if that name, or date of birth, or a plate, or something would help me to generate a case, or help in any matter — you know, my career,” said Jovana. Dana knew drug runners, gun runners, everyone. In Juárez, Dana had become friendly with members of La Linea, the Juárez cartel’s enforcement arm, named for the thick black line they use to mark an assassination. As a public minister, Dana had done a lot of favors for a lot of people and she had earned the right to request a few favors in return.

Jovana excelled at CBP. “Her attention to case management serves as an exemplary example to her peers,” her supervisor wrote in an annual performance report. She was made an ICE Special Agent in 2008 and started doing undercover work. Her male colleagues would pose as drug dealers while Jovana played the part of their cautious, doting girlfriend. Jovana had the distinct honor of recruiting the most highly compensated informant in office history.

Jovana and Vincent finally married and bought a peach stucco house on a dead-end street in Rio Rico, a hilly suburb of Nogales with views of the Coronado Mountains. Vincent had a 7-year-old son, Sebastian, from a previous relationship, who moved in with them after the boy’s mother died in a car accident. Vincent found a steady job as a regional pilot for a subsidiary of U.S. Airways. They were happy, settled. They spent their holidays on the East Coast with Vincent’s family. Jovana rarely visited her parents in Agua Prieta. They still didn’t approve of Vincent, and Jovana got tired of hearing her father rant about her responsibility to secure residential papers for him and the rest of the family. But she and Dana always remained close, and Dana held a special visa that allowed her to drive up to Arizona whenever she pleased.

Dana and Miguel divorced in 2006 after Miguel cheated on Dana with one of her closest friends. Miguel moved to Brazil to work for a money laundering organization while Dana returned to Agua Prieta and started spending a lot of time at the Fitness Center, a gym with a clientele largely composed of women with plush lips, exaggerated breasts, and taut, blonde ponytails. The Fitness Center is owned by Marcos Paredes, the Sinaloa cartel’s local representative. Paredes was detained in Mexico early last year but appears not to be fully confined — neighbors have spotted him strolling the streets outside his steroidal home, which is buttressed by thick, sandstone walls.

When she wasn’t at the gym, Dana would cruise around Agua Prieta. She had a weakness for Escalades and often owned three at a time, replacing them every few months. Dana liked to brag to her friends about “a guy in D.C.” she knew. He had access to government records and was happy to retrieve anything they needed: Any friend of Dana’s was a friend of his.

Dana and Miguel had started asking Jovana for information about their friends and associates when she began her career at CBP. It’s unclear whether she complied, but after her divorce, Dana’s requests seemed to become harder to refuse. When Dana’s friend wanted to ensure that she and a boyfriend could transport money for Paredes without being stopped, Jovana checked their records. Jovana provided information about human smugglers, drug traffickers — if Dana asked for something, Jovana complied. “I was her guy in D.C.,” Jovana later confessed. Dana was selling the information, someone close to her explained, but it wasn’t clear whom she was selling it to. Nor was it clear if Jovana was an equal partner in Dana’s business, or if Jovana simply wanted to repay her sister for all of her help during the early stages of her government career.

Agents are allowed to search for people in the government database only when it’s relevant to an assignment. They’re suspended if caught using the system for their own, extracurricular purposes. Each search is recorded electronically, so misuse of the system rarely goes undetected. Jovana knew the rules — she was her office’s database security officer — but she had no interest in following them. She looked up her father, Antonio. She looked up Uncle Oscar’s granddaughters, who had been arrested for carrying marijuana across the border. She used the database when she needed to confirm a relative’s birthday to buy a plane ticket so that she and her daughter could fly to Los Angeles for a special procedure at Shriners Hospital. Family was more important to her than DHS’ arbitrary rules. Jovana had an ethical flexibility informed, perhaps, by growing up in her father’s household; she seemed to believe that abusing the system was an unmentioned perk of the job. When Dana planned a trip into Arizona with a new boyfriend, Jovana checked that he wasn’t on a government watch list — she didn’t want Dana to be stopped at the port. Jovana was subtly protective of Dana — the perfect younger sister, allowing Dana to maintain the illusion of power.

One day, Dana called Jovana asking for the government’s files on Pedro Chavez, a junkyard owner in Juárez. This request was different from all the others: Dana needed a physical copy of Chavez’s file. Jovana willingly provided Dana with the contents of her associates’ files, summarizing them by the phone, but she wanted to avoid creating a paper trail. But Chavez, Jovana says, was a threatening figure, and Dana feared that unless she gave him exactly what he asked for, he would never leave her alone. It’s not clear why Chavez would be so desperate to see his file, since it was perfectly clean, but Jovana, as usual, performed Dana’s request, after mulling it over for a week. “I didn’t want anything to happen to her.” Jovana said. Jovana handed Dana a copy during one of her visits to Rio Rico.

Months later, Chavez was shot and killed while eating breakfast with his girlfriend at a popular restaurant in Juárez. Around the time of the murder, the DEA had tracked down Miguel Mendoza, Dana’s ex-husband, who was running a money laundering business and living at a hotel in São Paulo. Agents searched Miguel’s laptop and discovered a headshot of Pedro Chavez, which had clearly been taken from a U.S. government database and was dated Dec. 23, 2008 — the day Jovana conducted her search. The file was cropped into a tight close-up of Pedro’s face; all the information had been stripped away. Miguel wasn’t interested in Pedro’s criminal background, an investigator later pointed out. He needed to identify Pedro in a crowd. He needed a target card.

Jovana enlisted with Customs and Border Protection during what was perhaps the biggest recruitment campaign in the history of federal law enforcement. After the Sept. 11 attacks, George W. Bush ordered for more boots on the ground along the U.S.-Mexico border. While all of the hijackers had entered the U.S. by plane — with visas — the Mexican border was identified as a probable route for terrorists seeking to sneak into the country undetected.

Border Patrol doubled in size between 2001 and 2009. Applicants were supposed to submit to a rigorous series of background checks, but the agency wasn’t capable of conducting them all — there were just too many new hires. The government turned to private contractors, who were paid for each investigation they completed.

“When they laid me off, they told me that if I wanted to keep doing this work, I could get a job with a private investigative firm,” said Tom Sauser, a retired customs officer who assisted with the recruitment effort. Staff members at CBP are supposed to have their backgrounds checked every five years, but the incoming officers absorbed so many resources that the agency was unable to conduct these reassessments. By the end of 2010, there were 19,000 CBP staff members whose background checks were long overdue. Sauser believes that the agency’s negligence toward its long-term employees posed an even greater security risk than skimping on the requirements for first-time hires. “Based on experience, most people come into the agency with the best intentions, and then they’ll commit one small offense — like they won’t ask their uncle to open his trunk when he crosses — and then, suddenly, they’re being offered lots of money to keep it up,” said Sauser.

There’s a great deal of temptation for law enforcement officers on the border. Drug trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry; keeping a customs officer or two on the payroll is a minor expense. “If the devil’s advocates have an inkling that you are a lawman of weak moral fiber, they will shove dirty money in your face until they completely own your soul,” wrote Lee Morgan, a retired customs agent from Douglas, in his memoir, The Reaper’s Line.

Customs and Border Patrol employs more than 60,000 people. The Arizona-Mexico border is dense with security personnel — it is, perhaps, one of the hardest places in the country to get away with speeding. In certain sparse stretches of desert, the white-and-green Border Patrol trucks appear like the only surviving life-form.

Those crossing the border with illicit materials have fewer options than they used to: There’s a fence; there are motion detectors buried in the ground; there are agents operating reconnaissance drones and protecting the border from every angle. “They can no longer go around us, below us, over us, because we’re in the water, we’re in the air,” said David V. Aguilar, Deputy Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during a 2012 congressional hearing. “Now they come at us directly towards our employees trying to corrupt us.” In this way, the strategies of the drug war resemble that of the Cold War, with each side heavily dependent on undercover informants.

“I would say at least 90% of everything we did relied on informants,” said Terry Kirkpatrick, a retired customs agent from Nogales. Informants are paid well. He recalled that those who assist with a drug seizure earn $5 per confiscated pound of marijuana and $15 per pound of cocaine; the best informants can make over a million dollars in a year.

The agency needs officers who are capable of recruiting informants. With this in mind, it’s not clear whether applicants with relatives in the drug industry should immediately fail the background check or be moved to the top of the pile. In the past, customs refused to station an agent within 500 miles of his or her hometown. The possibility of being compromised, by a childhood friend or a cousin, was just too great. In recent years, this policy has been discontinued. The risks of hiring local agents are apparent, but when it comes to gathering intelligence, there are many potential rewards as well.

Before the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002 to oversee all border-related enforcement, border security was split among multiple agencies. In the new, post-9/11 hierarchy, immigration enforcement procured an especially high standing. This was frustrating to people like Terry Kirkpatrick, who had worked for decades as a customs investigator and despised the idea of reporting to an immigration officer.

“The Customs Service was the oldest law enforcement agency in the federal government. You were proud to work for this agency,” Kirkpatrick said. “We didn’t like the immigration service. We looked down at them.” After the transition to Homeland Security, many of Kirkpatrick’s contemporaries opted for early retirement. The result, Kirkpatrick says, was “a lot of inexperienced managers.” A 2007 memo from the U.S. Accountability Office mentioned a “concern about the availability of sufficient supervisory personnel to address the rapid influx of inexperienced new agents.” DHS has attempted to maintain a five-to-one agent-to-supervisor ratio, but they haven’t consistently had the staffing to do so.

Since 2004, more than 150 CBP employees have been formally indicted for corruption. They have been caught smuggling people, guns, and drugs, as well as sharing confidential government information directly to cartels. Some infractions are heavily punished, some hardly at all. One officer who was found to be “inappropriately associating” with informants was suspended from the agency and returned to work five days later.

The immigration bill currently being debated in the Senate would increase border security. Senator John Coryn of Texas has proposed an amendment that would allocate $1 billion per year for border security efforts. He would add more drones and more people — he demands for 10,000 new Border Patrol officers over the next five years — but mentions nothing about controlling the corruption that these developments are likely to encourage.

The FBI started surveilling Jovana in 2009 after receiving a tip from an informant who claimed that Jovana was working for an Agua Prieta cartel. They watched from a parked car as Dana and her mother visited Jovana’s house in Rio Rico, arriving in a truck registered in Miguel’s name. They watched as Jovana had lunch at an Olive Garden in Tucson with a friend who had been arrested years earlier for forgery. They waited outside the hospital as Jovana gave birth to her son, Whitt, named after Vincent’s father. They noted that Dana and her mother had arrived at the hospital with a canvas bag and had departed without it.

The FBI started tracking Jovana more closely after the incident with the Nogales informant list in July 2010. The following February, Jovana received a phone call from Agent Carlos Cruz, an investigator based in Douglas. Why, Cruz wondered, had she been looking up one of his targets, a human smuggler and nightclub owner in Agua Prieta named Carlos Grijalva? Jovana panicked: She made up a convoluted story involving an unnamed informant who knew Grijalva. “She was very nervous. She was talking real quick,” Cruz later testified. “It didn’t sit well with me.” He brought up the incident with his supervisor.

In May 2011, Jovana received an email from James Lacey, a federal prosecutor in Tucson, asking her to come by his office to discuss an investigation. But when she arrived for the meeting, she was surprised to find that she was the subject, not the investigator, of the case Lacey wanted to discuss. She was under arrest, the FBI agents told her, for sharing government documents. They gave Jovana two options: She could go to jail or she could help them identify more corrupt agents. “Do you want to go home — do you want to go back home to your 10-month-old baby? If you do, there’s ways you can help yourself and help us,” one of the agents said, according to Jovana. (The agent denies saying this.)

As soon as the meeting was over, Jovana called her sister and told her she was in trouble and needed information, quickly. Dana had an idea: A friend in Juárez from Dana’s police squad, a member of La Linea, owed Dana a favor — a big favor — and he had been collaborating with a corrupt inspector at the El Paso port.

Jovana took an extended sick leave from work but met with the FBI every few days. The agents would designate a meeting point, and Jovana would drive to the agreed-upon location in Rio Rico or Tubac, a flamboyantly cute town that looks like a Disney mockup of a Southwestern village. An agent would then climb into the passenger seat of Jovana’s car to question her. Jovana knew what they were doing; it was a standard interrogation tactic — she couldn’t escape or cut off the conversation while seated behind the steering wheel.

Jovana was confident that Dana’s La Linea contact would come through. “This guy is really in tight with Dana, and he knows that she’s trying to help me,” the FBI said Jovana told them while being interrogated in her car.

But Dana was never able to find out the El Paso inspector’s name. Dana’s next lead was in Agua Prieta: She knew a caterer who had thrown a party in honor of a Border Patrol inspector who permitted a large shipment of marijuana to pass into Douglas. But this wasn’t news to the FBI: The inspector, Luis Vasquez, had already been indicted on conspiracy and drug trafficking charges.

Jovana had run out of ideas. She told the FBI that she wouldn’t be able to help them and resigned from her job at HSI. “We were actually shocked,” said David Bachillier, who had been a colleague of hers at CBP. “All friends who knew her couldn’t believe it.” Like Jovana, David Bachillier had grown up near the border and had family on both sides of the line. “People will ask you for favors,” he said. Jovana’s only crime, he thinks, was succumbing to pressure from her family.

Terry Fitzpatrick suspects that Jovana had every intention when she enlisted with CBP to use her position to help Dana and other Samaniegos. Fitzpatrick supervised an investigation of Manuel Samaniego in the ’90s and said that in families like his, “the uncles involved in the business will pick out somebody who’s up and coming and doing well in school and literally pay for the college education and pay for these people to prepare to become a customs inspector, so they can move loads through the port easily.” Tom Sauser thinks that Jovana gave into the temptation after she enlisted. “They’ll hook you with one small favor, and then you’re in it for good,” Sauser said. Someone close to both sisters was convinced that Jovana received a sizable cut every time Dana sold information.

Dana was also indicted in Jovana’s case, but she has yet to turn herself in. When Jovana was formally arrested, Dana skipped town, leaving her sons with her parents in Agua Prieta. Curiously, Miguel was not charged in the case even though he, too, possessed confidential files. Kirkpatrick believes that Miguel was the one to give up the Samaniego sisters to the FBI.

Jovana pleaded guilty to all 21 charges against her. Vincent, his family, and some of their friends wrote letters on her behalf, begging the judge not to send Jovana to jail: She was a good parent, the letters all say; Jovana’s stepson had made honor roll, and her youngest was still an infant. Jovana’s parents did not write a letter on her behalf — they were old-fashioned, schooled in the tradition that controversial matters were best left unspoken. “They’re ashamed. Or embarrassed,” Jovana said at her trial. According to her lawyer, Jovana was never upset by her parents’ inaction; she seemed to be accustomed to playing the family caretaker and had no expectations that those roles would reverse. Their mother felt beholden to Dana, according to someone who knows the family: She was unmarried and unable to work in the U.S. and needed her mother more than Jovana did. Antonio stopped speaking with Dana; he blamed her for Jovana’s situation. None of Jovana’s colleagues from ICE or CBP wrote letters to the judge. They told Jovana that they had been instructed by the U.S. attorney’s office not to get involved in the case.

Jovana’s sentencing hearing was held over two days last July. James Lacey, the U.S. prosecutor, likened Jovana to Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who received a life sentence for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. Lacey recommended a 10-year sentence. He called several witnesses: Carlos Cruz, the agent in Douglas, said that Jovana’s actions had mired his office’s relationship with informants. “We’ve had sources come and discuss with us that they were unable or are not willing to work with us due to the fact that the cartels out of Agua Prieta have a list of all of our informants indicating what they were doing,” he said.

When Jesus Lozanía, her colleague from Nogales, took the witness stand, he spoke about the leaked informant list in Nogales. He also told the judge that he feared Jovana had shared his personal information — and that of their colleagues — with her cartel contacts. “I ensured that all of my personal information was redacted from the public record. I deviated from my normal travel patterns and I had my wife and children change their travel patterns,” Lozanía said. He even blamed Jovana for the fact that the cartels had stopped using ultra-light planes. “The cartels changed their operation — operating procedures, their modus operandi if you will,” Lozanía said.

There were no witnesses called on Jovana’s behalf. The only person she could have called on — the only person who might have been able to relieve Jovana from charges of criminal intent — was her sister, Dana. And she was nowhere to be found.

Jovana received a three-year sentence. Julie Santander, Jovana’s lawyer, thinks the trial was a publicity stunt. “Everyone knows that there are people in these agencies that do bad things. This way if anyone had any inkling that something was wrong, they could point and say, ‘Found her,’” Santander said. She’s become the face, Santander argues, of a much bigger problem. She succumbed to the same temptations faced by other officers from the border region — family requests, possible financial rewards — but happened to have been caught. Jovana was one of two agents mentioned by name during a congressional hearing late last year on the topic of how Homeland Security handled internal corruption investigations.

“Jovana Deas committed an egregious breach of the deep trust placed in our ICE special agents,” said Joe Jeronimo, from the Office of Professional Responsibility, in a statement. “While her actions are atypical of the dedication and integrity demonstrated by the vast majority of ICE employees, this sentence should nonetheless send a message about the serious consequences facing those who would exploit their positions and violate that special trust.”

In November, Jesus Lozanía’s brother, Luis Enrique Lozanía, was killed. He was shot while driving home to Agua Prieta, where he ran a car dealership, after a business trip. Neighbors suspected that whoever killed him had done so on Jovana’s behalf: Jesus Lozanía had been the most dramatic and damning witness at Jovana’s trial.

Dana is still living in Agua Prieta, someone close to her told me. She rarely leaves the house. Rumor has it she traveled into the States a month before her sister’s trial — let in, it would seem, by another corrupt inspector working the border.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Customs and Border Protection as Customs and Border Patrol.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents stand at the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Arizona. John Moore / Getty Images









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