Eugenio Velazquez doesn't fit the mold of the down-on-his luck, uneducated, underemployed courier who ferries drugs to the U.S. for Mexican drug cartels.
The dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico belongs to Tijuana's elite, equally at ease on both sides of the border. He lives in a modest, suburban San Diego neighborhood and had a flourishing career designing some of the Mexican border city's most prominent buildings over the last decade, including its new main cathedral, an expansion of the Tijuana Cultural Center and the police headquarters.
Velazquez, 51, awaits sentencing Monday in San Diego for trying to smuggle 12.8 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. in a special lane for prescreened, trusted motorists. A drug-sniffing dog alerted inspectors to five packages hidden in the battery of his 2004 Nissan Quest at San Diego's San Ysidro port of entry.
Why would such a highly esteemed architect at the peak of his game risk so much?
Velazquez wrote U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan last week that criminals threatened to kill him and hurt his family in San Diego and Tijuana if he refused.
"Fear and uncertainty are the worst of counselors one could have," he wrote. "They paralyze you and one acts stupidly because your mind plays games on you."
As Mexican cartels move cocaine north from South America, they rely on "mules" to hide small packages of drugs in vehicle compartments and on their bodies to get past U.S. inspectors on the Mexican border. Many couriers are young, poor or adrift, desperate for a few hundred dollars. At California crossings alone, inspectors seized 86 tons of marijuana, 7 tons of cocaine and 4 tons of methamphetamine in the 2011 fiscal year.
"Eugenio Velazquez is not your typical border bust defendant," his attorney, Jeremy Warren, wrote the judge.
Born in the U.S. and raised and educated in Mexico, the college professor and devoted Catholic boasts more than 400 residential, commercial and liturgical projects during a 30-year career that includes a stint as president of the Tijuana Architects Association. His works range from utilitarian industrial parks for multinational corporations on Tijuana's eastern outskirts to some of the city's most recognized landmarks.
Zeta, a Tijuana newspaper known for investigating organized crime, named Velazquez its Cultural Person of the Year in 2008. That year, the Tijuana Cultural Center opened "El Cubo," or "The Cube," a $9-million, burnt-sienna structure that stands next to a distinctive globe-shaped building and provides enough space for large art exhibitions.
Velazquez has described his work as modern with regional flair and claimed Frank Lloyd Wright as an influence.
Mery Lopez-Gallo, his wife of 19 years, is also highly visible as community affairs director for Spanish-language Univision radio stations in San Diego, known for charitable work on her employer's behalf. She was instrumental in producing spots that warned migrants to the dangers of being smuggled in hidden vehicle compartments and trunks, a campaign that won the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner's Award for Public Service in 2005.
According to a court filing by his attorney, Velazquez's downfall began with a project to design a ranch's facade. The architect, fearful of drug-fueled violence, accepted his client's offer to provide personal security when crossing the border between home and work. The arrangement seemed to work out so well that Velazquez referred a friend who also wanted protection.
Then the client — unnamed in the filing — demanded the men pay $40,000 or drive drugs across the border. He flipped a coin to determine who would transport the drugs and Velazquez lost. The architect surrendered his minivan for packing and got the call for March 4, his wife's birthday.
Lopez-Gallo says she received threatening calls within hours of her husband's detention, prompting her to flee to her brother's house with her two teenage daughters. She wrote the judge that she "felt the devil's breath running in the back of my neck."
Velazquez told the judge that he should have volunteered to border inspectors that his minivan was loaded with drugs.
"To my end, I know I did the wrong thing," he wrote.
Velazquez, who pleaded guilty in June to one count of importing a controlled substance, has elicited little sympathy from U.S. authorities.
"It's very common for a drug smuggler to claim coercion after they get caught," said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which led the investigation. "The question is why they don't come to authorities before they're caught."
"Do they quit if they get away with it the first time?" she added.
Paul Starita, an assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, declined to comment on Velazquez's explanation.
Jesse Navarro, a longtime Velazquez family friend who works as a public affairs officer for the San Diego County district attorney's office, said he was disappointed that the architect didn't turn to authorities for help and called his behavior "ignorant and naive." Yet he said he also understood Velazquez's fears.
"It appears that he felt trapped and determined — incorrectly — that the only way to protect himself and his family was to do what the unscrupulous narco-traffickers demanded of him," Navarro wrote the judge.
Velazquez's attorney has asked the judge for a one-year sentence of home confinement. After being freed on $100,000 bond, Velazquez opened an architecture and interior design firm with a friend in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb.
Velazquez is pressing ahead with Tijuana's Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral, a giant complex under construction across the street from City Hall that will be the seat of the Catholic archdiocese.
"He desperately wants to complete that project, and the church has stood behind him as the architect whose vision has been and will continue to be embodied throughout the structures and grounds," his attorney wrote the judge.