It was an elaborate smuggling scheme that used duplicate keys to stash drugs in the trucks of unsuspecting motorists on the border.
Now one the drivers who became an unsuspecting drug mule is suing Ford for allegedly providing the information that helped smugglers get a key of his vehicle.
“From Ford, to dealership, dealership to locksmith to complete stranger, it took 18 minutes to get the key,” said Louis Lopez, an El Paso attorney.
He represents Ricardo Magallanes, a wrongfully convicted University of Texas El Paso student who spent six months in jail.
The FBI discovered he and other motorists were targeted by a smuggling ring that used VIN numbers to get duplicate keys to stash the drugs in the trunks of vehicles.
The smugglers chose professionals and students who commuted daily across the border from Juarez to El Paso. Most used the secure traveler or Sentri lane and drove Ford vehicles.
The smuggling ring placed the drugs in the vehicles when they were parked in Juarez and then retrieved the load when the driver parked at school or work on the El Paso side.
According to an FBI affidavit, the smugglers posted lookouts near the border to track travelers, get their routines, and routes.
They picked teacher Ana Isela Martinez Amaya who drove a Ford Focus because she was always on time.
But on the morning of May 26, 2011 she was delayed by Mexican soldiers doing random searches near the bridge.
“On that day they asked me to open the trunk. I opened it and they found two duffle bags with marijuana inside. My life changed forever, “said Martinez.
Martinez went from teacher of the year at the La Fe Academy, a private school in El Paso to suspected drug smuggler locked up in a Mexican prison.
“At that time I was facing a sentence of probably 15 years in prison for something I didn’t do and I was not aware of all," Martinez said.
Martinez was only released after the FBI uncovered a smuggling ring and identified at least five unsuspecting drivers who had duffle bags stuffed with marijuana planted in their trunks.
“Having to explain to small children and your wife, and everyone, you know daddy’s been taken away,” said Lopez of his client's experience after he was arrested at the international bridge on November 11th, 2010.
U.S. Customs officers found two duffle bags with 112 pounds of marijuana in the trunk of his Ford Focus.
A jury convicted the UTEP music student on drug charges and he was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison until a judge questioned the verdict.
Lopez says in the same courthouse another man accused of a similar smuggling attempt was found not guilty.
“Everything was the same: the bags, the packing, the way the marijuana was put together, even the little ties they use to tie up the duffle bags, the Ford Motor Company car,” Lopez said.
The charges were dropped after the FBI investigation revealed Magallanes was one of the victims of the duplicate key smuggling scheme.
Two El Paso men were charged in connection with the scheme. Jesus Chavez pleaded guilty for his role and was sentenced to 20 years in a federal prison in 2012.
His suspected partner, Carlos Alberto Gomez is a fugitive.
In an e-mailed statement the Ford Motor company said, “Ford Motor Company cooperated with the FBI in their investigation. Ford requires its dealers to restrict the release of duplicate vehicle keys or key code information to only the registered owner of the vehicle and prohibits the giving or sale of duplicate keys or key code information to third-parties without the consent of the registered owner.”
In a 2011 affidavit an FBI Agent familiar with investigation said the information used to make duplicate keys was from a single “user account” from a Ford dealership in Dallas. The dealership was not identified by the agent.
That account accessed 5,331 vehicle key codes in 18 month across the country and provided those codes to one or more “key code source” companies which locksmiths rely on to cut duplicate keys.
The El Paso locksmith used that information to make keys for the drug smugglers who turned drivers into unsuspecting mules.
The FBI also sent someone to that same locksmith with a VIN number for a 2006 Ford Taurus asking for a duplicate key. .
The locksmith made the duplicate key but an employee “informed the individual that the key would only work to get into the care, but would not start it.”
“Locking your car is not enough. Now people have access to those codes and they can open your car at anytime, at any place, so that’s really scary,” Martinez said.
She and the other victims were cleared of all charges after the FBI discovered the scheme.
The elementary school teacher is not involved in the lawsuit. She no longer drives a Ford.
After spending six weeks in a Mexican prison, she feels vulnerable every time she crosses the border.
“I definitely check my trunk every day,” Martinez said.