Sixteen people—members of the U.S. armed forces, prison guards, a federal port inspector and a Nogales, Ariz., police officer—were trapped in an FBI cocaine sting, with 11 pleading guilty to conspiracy charges in federal court Thursday.
Five more Davis-Monthan Air Force Base personnel were also charged in what officials called a widespread corruption scandal that will eventually lead to more arrests of U.S. military and law enforcement officers.
Dubbed Operation Lively Green, the FBI sting started in December 2001 when sources notified the FBI that military personnel and law enforcement officers were running loads of cocaine in Arizona, said Jana Monroe, the special-agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Phoenix field office.
Agents lured the military members and law enforcement officers with thousands of dollars in cash for running cocaine loads north from the border.
“They were working for the FBI. They didn’t know they were working for the FBI,” said Noel L. Hillman, section chief of the public integrity section of the criminal division of the Justice Department.
To protect the cocaine loads, the group would wear their uniforms and flash their badges at checkpoints in Arizona and Nevada, said Hillman.
At the time, the 16 people worked for the Arizona Army National Guard, the Arizona Department of Corrections, the Nogales Police Department, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Army, and the federal Bureau of Prisons, Hillman said.
They agreed to plead guilty to the conspiracy charge and to cooperate with the ongoing investigation. Hillman said a “significant number” of further arrests will occur, though he declined to say how many people and what agencies are involved.
Defense attorneys pointed at the poor economic status of the mostly black and Hispanic defendants.
“They’re obviously involved in what the government caught them up in,” said Hortencia Delgadillo, an attorney for David Bustamante, a 35-year-old defendant who worked as a prison guard.
But with the temptation for thousands of dollars, “they’re obviously going to attract people who need it,” she said.