By Brad Poole
TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - Two ex-U.S. Border Patrol agents who forced a group of suspected drug smugglers to chew handfuls of marijuana and flee shoeless into the chilly Arizona desert were each sentenced on Tuesday to two years in federal prison.
A jury convicted Dario Castillo, 25, and Ramon Zuniga, 31, in April of violating the civil rights of the four Mexican men, all of whom were in the United States illegally, in connection with the incident in southern Arizona five years ago.
The two defendants, who were later fired from the Border Patrol, each made brief statements apologizing for their actions before they were sentenced in a Tucson courtroom. Both have said they were fatigued and under stress at the end of long work shifts when they abused the smugglers.
"I allowed these individuals to get the best of me that night," Zuniga told the judge. "I've regretted those actions every single day for the past five years."
The 2008 incident unfolded after another border agent mounted on horseback discovered a group of men sleeping in a dry streambed in the desert and called for backup.
Zuniga and Castillo responded, but as they arrived on the scene, the group of about 20 suspected smugglers scattered into the night, leaving behind 21 bundles of marijuana, later valued at more than $600,000, which were seized.
Four of the smugglers were captured and stripped of their shoes and jackets, which is normal procedure for agents maintaining control of multiple suspects.
But then the smugglers' belongings were thrown into a small fire and three of the men were forced, while kneeling on the ground in handcuffs, to chew handfuls of marijuana, according to trial testimony.
The men were then told to flee into the desert, shoeless and without jackets, on a night when the temperature hovered around 50 F (10 C). They were captured the next morning by tribal police from the Tohono O'odham Nation.
The unidentified men initially said they had been robbed by bandits, but after they were transferred to Border Patrol custody, they accused Castillo and Zuniga of the abuses.
The four Mexicans were never charged and all were eventually deported.
Castillo, who witnesses said lit the fire, burned the men's belongings and ordered the men to flee, was convicted of four felony counts of depriving civil rights, punishable by up to 10 years in prison for each count.
Zuniga, who force-fed the cannabis to the men, was convicted of four misdemeanor counts, each of which carries a maximum term of one year in prison.
U.S. District Judge Jennifer Zipps said that even though the two agents were found guilty of different offenses, they were equally culpable and deserved the same punishment.
She sentenced each to two years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised probation after their release.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Steve Gorman and Chris Reese)