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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of Texas

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Rio Grande City Nurse Practitioner On Her Way To Federal Prison In Marijuana Case

McALLEN, Texas – Celia Raquel Zuniga, 45, of Rio Grande City, has been ordered to prison following her conviction of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and possession with intent to distribute marijuana, announced United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson. The McAllen federal jury convicted Zuniga following a two-day trial and approximately two hours of deliberations on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013.

U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez, who presided over the trial, handed Zuniga a total sentence of 78 months in prison to be immediately followed by four years of supervised release. At the hearing today, the court enhanced her sentence, finding she obstructed justice when she perjured herself while testifying at trial. She was further ordered to pay a $5,000 fine as to each count. In handing down the sentence, Judge Alvarez noted while Zuniga performed a great service to the community as a nurse practitioner, she was causing great harm to the community because of this type of criminal activity.

During trial, Starr County sheriff’s deputies testified that on Dec. 6, 2012, they observed three vehicles driving in tandem going east on Expressway 83 near the Starr County and Hidalgo County line. They then observed the middle vehicle change lanes without signaling. Deputies conducted a traffic stop and identified Zuniga as the driver. At that time, deputies noticed a strong odor of marijuana emitting from the vehicle and a canine subsequently alerted to the presence of narcotics.

Initially, Zuniga lied to deputies and denied there was anything illegal in her vehicle. However, after stepping out of her vehicle and when asked a second time, Zuniga admitted there was something illegal inside. Deputies then recovered 24 bundles of marijuana, weighing approximately 243 kilograms within the car. 

In her defense, Zuniga testified she had been kidnaped by multiple men while she was driving to a friend’s house. She claimed they took her to a cemetery while bundles of marijuana were loaded into her vehicle. She further testified they told her she would need to drive the vehicle to McAllen or else something would happen to her family.

The jury was not convinced of Zuniga’s claim of duress and ultimately found her guilty as charged.

Previously released on bond, Zuniga was taken into custody following the return of the verdict where she will remain pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.

The case was investigated by Homeland Security Investigations with the assistance of the Starr County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant United States Attorney Kimberly Ann Leo is prosecuting.

Updated April 30, 2015