SAN DIEGO: When Brian Houston wed his Mexican fiancee in a surprise ceremony during a rare opening of the steel gate on the US-Mexico border fence last month, he said it was because he could not cross into Tijuana.
Now we know why.
Houston, a US 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 cross-border event at Border Field State Park.
Houston was arrested in February as he crossed through the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Found hidden in his Volkswagen Jetta were 43 pounds of heroin, 47 pounds of methamphetamine and 43 pounds of cocaine, 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.”
The incident could put future “Door of Hope” events in jeopardy. The event is closely monitored and choreographed, with a handful of vetted families on the US side allowed to embrace and greet family members on the Mexican side in three-minute reunions under the watchful eye of Border Patrol agents. The encounters are held on a small strip of land owned by the Department of Homeland Security known as Friendship Park.
The enormous border gate has opened with fanfare like this six times since 2013.
The event is organised by the Border Angels nonprofit group, run by executive director Enrique Morones. He 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.
Twelve families were approved for the November 18 opening — including Houston — although one family did not show, Morones said.
Border Patrol spokesperson Takae Michael said Houston was “screened through an internal vetting process based on biographical information provided to us” by Morones. “A review of the provided information, through our DHS systems, did not indicate criminal activity,” Michael said.
The wedding between Houston and Evelia Reyes was a surprise to agents. The couple — in only a few minutes — signed documents from the Tijuana municipal authorities, posed for pictures and hugged. The nuptials were widely covered by news outlets on both sides of the border, including The San Diego Union-Tribune.
“It’s a statement that love has no borders,” Houston told reporters at the time. “Even though we are divided by a giant fence here, we can still love each other on both sides of the fence.”
He said his wife was working with an immigration attorney to get a green card to live in the United States.
Wilson, the Border Patrol union rep, said Morones should have alerted the agents to the wedding.
“They showed up dressed for a wedding,” Wilson said. “The agents there were powerless to stop it. We were certainly put on the spot.”
The Border Patrol said that after the wedding, “a subsequent review of Houston’s information was completed and confirmed a match for a previous arrest for drug smuggling.”
Morones said he plans to meet soon with San Diego’s new Border Patrol chief, Rodney Scott, to discuss the incident and future events.
“We were shocked to learn this past week of Brian Houston’s very serious criminal situation. That goes against everything Border Angels stands for,” Morones said. Border Angels is a humanitarian group serving immigrants that started decades ago by leaving water and other supplies in the desert for border crossers.
Houston, who had a Sentri pass, which allows expedited clearance on arriving in the United States for preapproved travellers, approached the port of entry at 10.30am on February 28 and said he had nothing to declare, according to the complaint. But the US Customs and Border Protection officer smelled a strong chemical odour while inspecting the trunk and noticed scrapes that suggested the lining of the compartment had been tampered with, the complaint states.
Under the lining, several plastic-wrapped packages could be seen, the complaint says. 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 67 packages in all.
After his arrest, Houston was granted release on $20,000 bond secured by the signatures of his parents and a 15 per cent cash deposit, according to court records. He was also not allowed to enter Mexico and had to surrender his US passport.
He pleaded guilty in May to importing the drugs. Sentencing is set for February 23.