Baja, CA - U.S. Border Patrol agents are furious after what is being described as a "cartel wedding" was held at a Door of Hope event in November.
The wedding between Brian Houston and Evelia Reyes was a surprise to agents.
Houston had said that he was unable to cross into Mexico, and the reason became apparent after Border Patrol agents checked further.
Door of Hope events are sponsored by the Border Angels, a non-profit organization based in San Diego that is run by executive director Enrique Morones.
The organization focuses on migrant rights, immigration reform, and the prevention of immigrant deaths along the border.
Brian Houston, a U.S. citizen, is awaiting sentencing in San Diego federal court on a drug smuggling conviction, a fact that the Border Patrol says it did not know when it ran a background check on him clearing him to participate in the event at Border Field State Park, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Houston was arrested in February as he crossed through the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Police had found 43 pounds of heroin, 47 pounds of methamphetamine and 43 pounds of cocaine hidden in his Volkswagen Jetta, according to the complaint.
"The agents are upset, feel like they were taken advantage of, feel like they were duped,” said Joshua Wilson, vice president and spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613. “Turns out we provided armed security for a cartel wedding.”
Future Door of Hope events could be in jeopardy because of the incident. The event is closely monitored, with a handful of vetted families on the United States side allowed to embrace and greet family members on the Mexican side in three-minute reunions supervised by Border Patrol agents.
The events are held on a small strip of land owned by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) known as Friendship Park. The huge border gate has opened six times for the event since 2013.
Morones gives questionnaires to interested families who cannot cross the border legally for whatever reason, and the forms are then provided to the Border Patrol for approval.
"Border Angels has never done any background checks, as the Border Patrol advised us they will do all background checks and advise us which families have been cleared,” Morones said in a statement Wednesday. "We were shocked to learn this past week of Brian Houston’s very serious criminal situation. That goes against everything Border Angels stands for,” he said.
Houston was “screened through an internal vetting process based on biographical information provided to us” by Morones, according to Border Patrol spokesperson Takae Michael.
“A review of the provided information, through our DHS systems, did not indicate criminal activity,” Michael said.
Wilson said Morones should have alerted the agents to the wedding. “They showed up dressed for a wedding. The agents there were powerless to stop it. We were certainly put on the spot," he said.
After the wedding, “a subsequent review of Houston’s information was completed and confirmed a match for a previous arrest for drug smuggling," according to the Border Patrol.
The couple signed documents from the Tijuana municipal authorities, posed for pictures and hugged. The wedding was widely covered by news outlets on both sides of the border, including the Union-Tribune.
Houston, a SENTRI pass holder, approached the port of entry at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 28 and told officers he had nothing to declare, according to the criminal complaint. But the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer smelled a strong chemical odor while inspecting the trunk and noticed scrapes that indicated the lining of the compartment had been tampered with.
The Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. Participants may enter the United States by using dedicated primary lanes, according to the U.S. Borders and Customs and Border Patrol website.
Several plastic-wrapped packages were seen under the lining of Houston's Jetta, according to the criminal complaint. The car was driven through an X-ray machine and several more packages were detected in all four doors, rear quarter panels, and the spare tire. There were a total of 67 packages.
After Houston's arrest, he was granted release on $20,000 bond secured by the signatures of his parents and a 15 percent cash deposit, according to court records. He was not allowed to enter Mexico and had to surrender his U.S. passport.
He pleaded guilty in May to importing the three drugs. Sentencing is set for Feb. 23, 2018.
Twelve families were approved for the November event, including Houston, but the wedding was a complete surprise to Border Patrol agents. No weddings had been approved for past events, most likely because the reunions are limited to three minutes.
Houston said his wife was working with an immigration attorney to get a green card to live in the United States.
Morones said he plans to meet soon with San Diego’s new Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott to discuss the incident and future events.