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It started when a lemon hit Raquel Esquivel on the head.

Looking around the HEB in Del Rio, she spotted two old friends from high school – Diego Esquivel and Ramon Patuel – goofing around in the produce aisle.

"I said, 'Hey, y'all just hit me with a lemon,' and that's how the conversation started," she recalled.

Raquel Esquivel had left her hometown after graduating from high school in 2002, and hadn't seen Diego Esquivel (the two aren't related) until their chance meeting five years later. They exchanged numbers, and she told Diego and Patuel she was just weeks away from heading off for training at the U.S. Border Patrol Academy.

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Whether what followed counts as a love story or an ill-fated tumble down the path of least resistance remains unclear, but in the end, Raquel and Diego were both in federal prison. That's one of the risks when a Border Patrol agent gets involved with a drug smuggler.

Border roots

Raquel Esquivel, Diego Esquivel and Ramon Patuel all grew up in Del Rio, a border town with a population of roughly 35,000, and attended Del Rio High School. Diego was born across the river in Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila. Raquel grew up mostly speaking Spanish, and she traveled to Mexico nearly every Sunday to attend a Protestant Church her grandmother started in a small village just outside of Acuña.

Raquel began cheerleading in fourth grade and continued through most of high school. "That was my passion," she said. She lettered in it while working as a waitress at the Ramada Inn. After her 2002 graduation, she moved 100 miles west to Hondo, Texas, and met the father of her children. The two dated off and on until she moved back to Del Rio in 2006.

Raquel said she didn't know Diego well in school. After their chance grocery store meeting the two went on a couple dates, but "it was nothing major," she said.

Raquel had set her sights on a job in law enforcement, something she said she had never considered until seeing an advertisement for Border Patrol jobs at the local movie theater.

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"I said to myself, 'I wonder if I could complete that?'" she said. "I was a single mother, struggling ... they talked about the training, and I liked the challenge."

When she got back from her 17-week-long training, Raquel and Diego became intimate, they each confirmed. That would prove to be a mistake for the Border Patrol trainee.

Diego had a day job at Laughlin Air Force Base. Raquel said she believed he worked there as a janitor. But it was his other enterprise that would prove the couple's downfall.

According to court documents, Diego believed Raquel knew early on that he and Patuel were smuggling marijuana across the border for Mexican drug traffickers and that "she just had to be careful."

Diego and Patuel controlled a marijuana smuggling organization in Del Rio beginning in May 2006, according to presentencing court documents obtained by the Tribune. The pair used Lake Amistad and the Pecos River to smuggle drugs into the United States, acting as scouts, unloading the marijuana and assisting with transportation, according to the report. In his testimony, Diego said he became involved in smuggling marijuana as early as 2002 and ran dozens of loads before connecting with Raquel.

After renewing their relationship, according to court documents, Raquel began giving Diego information on highways to take, sensor locations and when officials would monitor the Pecos River ramp. Diego also claimed in court testimony that Raquel gave him a Border Patrol uniform and a cap. From federal prison, Raquel hotly denied the allegations and accused Diego of fabricating the claim about the clothing. She noted that prosecutors didn't present these supposed gifts at trial, nor did they demonstrate that any uniform items were missing.

Diego and his partner, Patuel, successfully smuggled two loads of marijuana with the agent's information but were caught while transporting a third load, according to court documents.

Diego, Patuel and Shannon Wayne Pierce were arrested in December 2007 on federal charges. Diego was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. Raquel was fired from the Border Patrol in March 2008 — while she was still on probation — and was arrested two months later on the same charge.

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Love or money?

When Raquel came to trial in April 2009, her attorneys tried to convince jurors she was an agent blinded by her love for the hometown boy who happened to be a drug smuggler, naively providing Diego and Patuel with information because of her intimate relationship with Diego.

During his trial testimony, Diego admitted that he saw Raquel as his girlfriend, using her position to keep him safe.

"I asked her a couple questions and she answered them," he testified at her trial. "She told me what to do and what not to do while I'm over there. I guess she was watching out for me."

But prosecutors argued that Raquel was no angel herself. They introduced testimony from Alonso Garcia, a convicted drug trafficker and acquaintance of Raquel, who testified she was in possession of a large amount of marijuana prior to joining Diego and Patuel's smuggling conspiracy.

Raquel Esquivel was still training to be a U.S. Border Patrol agent when she became romantically involved with a border drug smuggler.Customs and Border Protection

Prosecutors also argued that Raquel enjoyed the proceeds of Diego's smuggling. He testified that he bought her shoes and perfume and paid for her groceries with his drug money. He said he never paid her in cash for her assistance.

On April 30, 2009, a Del Rio jury found Raquel guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute.

"This whole love story about how we were in love and I manipulated her ... that wasn't real at all," Diego told the Tribune during a recent phone interview. Raquel also now says the two were never officially dating.

Diego pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana and was sentenced to seven years in prison and five years of supervised release. He agreed to testify against Raquel. "I want to get my sentence reduced," he told the court.

During his testimony, Diego described the smuggling operation and listed names of the people involved in the scheme. "In the end, we all knew what we were getting ourselves into," he said in the recent interview. "We were just living in the moment – young people making money and unaware of everything that could really happen."

The biggest price

Raquel maintained her innocence throughout her trial, and does to this day. But testimony from Diego and Patuel was stacked against her.

"He had money rolled up in bands in his apartment," she recalled. Looking back on it now, she said she regrets not realizing what was happening but didn't consider him to be her boyfriend. During an hourlong interview at her prison, she repeatedly denied giving Diego details about how to avoid being caught while crossing the border with hundreds of pounds of marijuana, and she readily provided her sealed presentencing report to the Tribune as evidence that she has nothing to hide.

She said Diego twisted facts to save his own skin, including turning an innocent and generic conversation about how Border Patrol sensors work into a false accusation that he gave her specific sensor locations.

"He was looking at a lot of time. He's a pretty boy," she said. "There's no way he was going to do that much time."

U.S. District Judge Alia Moses presided over Raquel's case. According to court records, she showed little sympathy toward the former agent during sentencing in November 2009. Moses, appointed by then-President George W. Bush in 2002, is well known for being tough on immigration and has handled many corruption cases from Del Rio.

"Is this what you're going to teach your children?" Moses asked Raquel. "That you sell your colleagues, you sell everything that you stand for, for a pair of shoes? That's shameful. That's sad. That's repulsive and repugnant."

Her attorney, Gregory Torres, said he was not surprised by the stiff sentence she received. The sentencing range was 151 to 188 months, according to transcripts. She was sentenced to 15 years.

"They hold Border Patrol officers to a different standard, and they should," Torres said. "You can't wear a Spurs jacket and play for the Rockets."

Raquel still puts on a dark green uniform every day, but it's not issued by the U.S. Border Patrol. Now she wears a jumpsuit from the federal Bureau of Prisons.

All three smugglers involved in the case — Diego Esquivel, Patuel and Pierce — have done their time and been released, but Raquel will remain in prison until 2022.

She describes the work camp where she lives as "a really old Motel 6." Now 32 years old, she shares her room with four other women and spends her free time on the treadmill, doing yoga or playing softball and volleyball. She works in the prison commissary and recently received her license to operate a forklift.

Raquel was pregnant with her third child during sentencing, and he was given to Raquel's mother, Veronica Esquivel, as soon as he was born. Her six-year-old son has spent his entire life separated from his mother.

Veronica stands by her daughter's story of innocence.

"I know she's been accused of something real big, and that's why she's incarcerated," she said. "To me, her only fault was getting involved with that young man."

Raquel was recently denied a two-point reduction to her sentence, a new policy that she and her parents hoped would reunite Raquel with her children sooner. She talks on the phone with her oldest children twice a week for 15 minutes at a time. Her parents and youngest child can rarely make the long trip to Fort Worth from Del Rio for visitation.

"My attorney calls me a 'big fish' because I was a Border Patrol agent," she said. "I feel like I was a poster child ... like they made an example out of me."

This story is part of The Texas Tribune's yearlong Bordering on Insecurity project.

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