July 29--A UTEP student has filed suit against Ford Motor Co., claiming the automaker negligently handed out key codes that allowed smugglers to plant illegal drugs in his car in 2010.
The smugglers planted more than 500 pounds of marijuana in the vehicles of Ricardo Magallanes, the man suing Ford, and four others who lived in Juarez and worked in El Paso, FBI agents said in a 2011 affidavit. Once in El Paso, the marijuana was intended for distribution throughout the United States, the affidavit says.
Of the five vehicles FBI agents learned were targeted by the scheme, four were made by Ford. Agents were told by a locksmith that the automaker gave "widely available access to Ford-key cut codes" while the biggest American carmaker, General Motors Co., did not, the affidavit says.
The document also said the codes in the Ford database were accessed by a single account at a Dallas auto dealer that gave out more than 2,300 codes for cars and trucks all over the United States during an 18-month period. But the documents don't say whether that was suspicious -- or if federal law enforcement is investigating the system that put innocents' car keys into the hands of drug smugglers.
Federal authorities and Ford did not respond to calls and emails for this story, which Magallanes' lawyer said raises a disturbing question: How many other times have customs
officers on El Paso's international bridges found drugs that were planted by smugglers who had improperly obtained keys to the vehicles of unwitting motorists?
"It's a quagmire for the government because every bridge case could be an innocent person," said Louis Lopez, who handled Magallanes' criminal case and is co-counsel in the civil suit against Ford.
Lopez said that for him and most other El Paso criminal-defense attorneys, such "bridge" cases are a major part of their practices and many of their clients claim no knowledge of the drugs customs officers find in their vehicles.
Magallanes was arrested on Nov. 16, 2010, as he tried to enter the United States on the Stanton Street Bridge. Customs agents found 112 pounds of marijuana in his trunk.
Magallanes, a music student, spent six months in jail awaiting trial. He was convicted in May 2011 and was facing more than 3 1/2 years in prison when charges against him suddenly were dropped.
Federal authorities had charged Jesus Chavez and Carlos Albert Gomez in a scheme to plant marijuana in cars of students and professionals who, like Magallanes, lived in Juarez and crossed every day into El Paso using special passes that expedited their trips over the city's crowded international bridges.
U.S. Senior District Judge David Briones called lawyers in the case together and told them he didn't like the jury verdict against Magallanes in light of the case federal prosecutors had developed against Chavez and Gomez, Lopez said.
Prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the case in June 2011.
"It was sheer luck," Lopez said. "You'll never see the Department of Justice or a federal judge do that again in my lifetime."
The El Paso media wrote and broadcast stories about many of the cases in which Gomez and Chavez were accused of using unwitting drug mules.
In one, Dr. Justus Lawrence Opot, who worked at El Paso Mental Health Mental Retardation, was briefly held in jail in Juarez after he reported to authorities there that he found two strange duffel bags in the trunk of his Mitsubishi.
Ana Isela Martinez Amaya, a fourth grade teacher at La Fe Preparatory Academy in El Paso, was held for more than three months in Juarez in 2011 after Mexican authorities found 105 pounds of marijuana in her 2003 Ford Focus.
James Ivan Diaz was arrested after U.S. Customs officers found 119 pounds of marijuana in the trunk of his 2001 Ford Focus. He was acquitted by a U.S. jury four months later, in May 2011.
The U.S. attorney declined to file charges against a fifth victim, Jorge Ramos, who along with his mother, told customs officers that there were two strange duffel bags in the trunk of his 2006 Ford Focus. They turned out to contain 129 pounds of pot.
Chavez was sentenced in September 2012 to 20 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to his role in the scheme.
Charges that carry a 10-years-to-life sentence still are pending against Gomez, who got away from agents when they tried to arrest him on June 30, 2011, the FBI affidavit says.
Now Magallanes is suing Ford, saying it was negligent in the way it passed out key codes for cars and trucks it made.
Lopez said access to the key codes was essential to the smugglers' scheme.
"But for that, this couldn't have worked," he said.
The lawsuit doesn't set a dollar amount, but Magallanes is demanding compensation for his actual damages, lost wages, mental anguish, lost earning capacity and punitive damages.
"Ford had no adequate system, computerized or otherwise, to perform an integrity check as to whether access to its key-source information database was misused," said the lawsuit, the latest version of which was filed on July 9.
In court papers, the automaker denied that it was responsible for the events that ended with Magallanes improperly jailed without bond, convicted by a jury and facing a lengthy prison sentence.
Ford said Chavez and Gomez -- and the El Paso locksmith who gave them Magallanes' key -- were responsible for the harm Magallanes suffered.
Ford also blamed and "the person" who accessed the company's key-code database for the locksmith. That person apparently was working with an employee of a Dallas Ford dealer, according to the FBI affidavit.
"One or more of the acts or omissions of these independent agencies destroyed the causal connection between the act or omission alleged against Ford and (Magallanes') injuries and thereby became the immediate cause of the injuries," Ford said in a court pleading.
Federal authorities did not name the locksmith from whom Chavez and Gomez got keys to their victims' cars, but a confidential informant told federal agents it was an El Paso company.
In its pleadings in the Magallanes suit, Ford said the locksmith was El Candado Locksmith and Towing in El Paso.
Antonio Machuca, who is listed as the company's president in filings with the Texas Secretary of State, declined to comment when contacted by phone last week.
In its affidavit, the FBI said agents sent someone to "locksmith A" with a vehicle-identification number for a 2006 Ford Taurus. That person emerged with a key 18 minutes later, the affidavit said.
The document doesn't say how much, if anything, the person paid for the key or whether the person had to show proof of ownership. It quotes an employee of "locksmith A" as saying the key would work in the vehicle's doors, but not in its ignition.
From Ford's Global Investigations Department, FBI agents learned that key codes for all four Ford vehicles used in the El Paso pot-smuggling scheme were accessed through "user-account A" at a Dallas Ford dealership.
A spokesman for the El Paso FBI office and a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas did not respond last week when asked whether they were investigating possible misuse of the Ford key database. But the July 1, 2011, FBI affidavit makes it sound as if the unnamed Dallas dealership was passing out a lot of codes.
"Per Ford Motor Co., user-account A has pulled/accessed 5,321 vehicle key codes in the last 18 months, approximately 10 key codes per day," the affidavit, signed by Special Agent J. Daniel Clark, says. "Also, based on my review of this information, user-account A has pulled vehicle key codes for Ford vehicles which are registered all over the United States, not just in Dallas, Texas. Based on the high volume of key codes pulled, as well as the geographic dispersion of the registered locations of the associated vehicles, I believe that user-account A is being utilized to provide key codes to one or more 'key code source' companies" such as the one that provided Magallanes' code to the El Paso locksmith.
It's unclear whether the Dallas dealer was accessing more codes than other dealerships, or whether any of the code-source companies or locksmiths they did business with acted corruptly.
More details are likely to emerge as Magallanes' lawyers take depositions and gather evidence. The case is scheduled for trial in July 2014.
Marty Schladen may be reached at email@example.com; 512-479-6606.
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