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Border Patrol agent convicted of drug trafficking

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A U.S. Border Patrol agent caught with more than 700 pounds of marijuana inside his truck was convicted in Arizona on Wednesday of drug-trafficking charges, authorities said.

Michael Atondo, 34, was arrested in April while on duty near the U.S.-Mexico border, with 44 marijuana bundles stacked neatly inside his marked border-patrol vehicle.

A federal jury in Phoenix found him guilty of conspiracy to import marijuana, conspiracy to possess marijuana and possession with intent to distribute marijuana, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona said.

"This agent crossed the line into criminal conduct and violated his oath and the public's trust," acting U.S. Attorney Ann Birmingham Scheel said in a statement.

"This circumstance, although rare and regrettable, sends a clear message -- that corrupt law-enforcement officials are not above the law and they will be brought to justice," she added.

Atondo, assigned to the Wellton, Arizona, substation in the western part of the state, faces up to 40 years in prison on each offense and a fine of up to $2 million. He is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton on January 9.

Prosecutors said Atondo was supposed to have been on patrol in Wellton on April 4 but set off a sensor miles away in a remote stretch of the desert near San Luis, Arizona.

Agents responding to the sensor found Atondo's government-issued truck backed up to the border fence with the rear door open and three other vehicles nearby.

Roughly 745 pounds of marijuana was discovered in the vehicle's rear compartment during a later search. The market value of the seizure was estimated to be $371,000.

Border Patrol corruption has been on the rise in recent years as the U.S. government has added more agents to its ranks in an attempt to better secure the nation's sprawling southwestern border with Mexico.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reports that 129 agents were arrested on corruption charges from 2003 to 2009.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)

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