PHOENIX (Reuters) - A U.S. Border Patrol agent who was arrested last week with hundreds of pounds of marijuana in his truck has been charged with drug trafficking offenses, authorities said on Tuesday.
The U.S. Attorney's office for the District of Arizona said a federal grand jury returned a four-count indictment against agent Michael Atondo for importing and possessing marijuana with intent to distribute.
Atondo was arrested on April 4 after Border Patrol agents found him in a remote area on the Mexico border near San Luis, Arizona, with 44 bundles of marijuana in his vehicle, the office said in a news release.
"When a law enforcement officer like Agent Atondo is accused of a crime, it can tarnish the image of the entire agency and erode the public's trust," U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke said in a statement.
"This type of corruption requires decisive action, and we will not hesitate to prosecute those who violate their oaths to serve and protect," he added.
Atondo was supposed to be on duty near Wellton, close to the Mexico border in western Arizona, when he allegedly set off a sensor in a remote area several miles away near San Luis, the office said.
Border Patrol agents allegedly found Atondo's Border Patrol vehicle backed up to the border fence with Mexico, where two Jeep Cherokee vehicles were parked up.
A subsequent search of Atondo's vehicle revealed 44 marijuana bundles weighing 745 pounds neatly stacked in the rear compartment used for transporting illegal aliens.
Atondo faces charges of conspiracy to import marijuana, importation of marijuana, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana and possession with intent to distribute marijuana.
A conviction on each count carries a sentence of up to 40 years in prison and a fine of up to $2 million.
Corruption cases involving border police have increased in recent years as the U.S. government has ramped up recruitment in a drive to secure the southwest border with Mexico.
Between 2003 and 2009, 129 Customs and Border Protection officers and Border Patrol agents were arrested on corruption charges, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security figures.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; editing by Peter Bohan)