Ralph Vartabedian, Richard Serrano and Richard Marosi
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
January 23, 2006
At least 200 public employees have been charged with helping to move narcotics or illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican border since 2004, at least double the illicit activity documented in prior years, a Times examination of public records has found. Thousands more are under investigation.
Criminal charges have been brought against Border Patrol agents, local police, a county sheriff, motor vehicle clerks, an FBI supervisor, immigration examiners, prison guards, school district officials and uniformed personnel of every branch of the U.S. military, among others. The vast majority have pleaded guilty or been convicted.
Officials in Washington and along the border worry about what lies below the surface. "It is the tip of the iceberg," said James "Chip" Burrus, assistant director of the criminal investigation division of the FBI. "There is a lot more down there. The problem is, you don't know what you don't know."
What is known -- from court cases, other public records and dozens of interviews -- is alarming enough. Some schemes have displayed considerable sophistication among Mexican drug lords, and their success shows a discouraging willingness by public employees to take tainted money.
Though America's southern border may evoke images of a poor backwater, it is alive with vast amounts of ill-gotten wealth, shadowy organizations that ply the waters of the Rio Grande, and brazen schemes that seem borrowed out of Cold War espionage.
Perhaps the most revealing example of smugglers' savvy was their cultivation of the highest-ranking FBI official in El Paso, Special Agent in Charge Hardrick Crawford.
FBI agents thought they had turned alleged drug kingpin Jose Maria Guardia into an informant, but Guardia was working as a double agent for the Mexican drug lords. He drew Crawford into a personal friendship, and provided a job for Crawford's wife, a country club membership for the couple and family trips to Las Vegas.
In August, after the chummy relationship became public, Crawford was convicted on federal charges of trying to conceal his friendship with Guardia. He could be sentenced to up to five years in prison and fined half a million dollars.
Drug rings once planted a mole in a federal agency, and officials worry others are lurking. The rings have entangled U.S. agents in sexual relationships. And they have amassed files on individual U.S. agents, with details about their finances, families and habits -- even the kind of bicycles their kids ride.
"They hire guys to watch the narcotics agents," says Lee Morgan II, who retired as the head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Douglas, Ariz., this year. "They know what time we get up in the morning. When we go to work. What kind of car your wife drives.
"We had an informant tell us he saw a film of us as we exited our office that was being shown in Mexico. They had our license plate numbers."
The Mexican criminal networks can afford lavish payoffs. Bribery payments have topped $1 million.
Paul K. Charlton, U.S. attorney for Arizona since 2001, is convinced border corruption is worsening -- and jeopardizing the trust that U.S. communities place in their government.
"The concern for me is that we can very quickly develop a culture that would be more accepting of that kind of misconduct," Charlton said. "You only have to look south of the border to see what happens when a certain level of corruption is accepted."
Officials warn that the risk of public corruption will grow as Congress and the Bush administration respond to public demands to improve border security. Customs and Border Protection, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, wants to add 10,000 employees to its workforce of 42,000, most of whom are already stationed along the Mexican border.
"If you increase the number of people on the border, you are going to get more corruption," said the FBI's Burrus.
More security, more corruption
Stepped-up border security also makes corruption all the more necessary to smugglers.
"As we tighten up on the border, it will make it harder for the traffickers to get across," said Johnny Sutton, U.S. attorney for Texas' Western District. "You have to be creative about getting your poison into the U.S. Obviously, corrupting the officials is a part of it."
Critics blame sloppy hiring practices, inadequate training and weak internal controls. Agents are vulnerable because morale in the agency is "pathetic," stemming in part from illegal immigrants' phony allegations against agents that have unfairly ruined careers, said T.J. Bonner, head of the union for Border Patrol agents.
Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar rejects those claims, saying morale is good thanks to more staffing and better equipment. Wages for public employees in the poor border economies are respectable; Border Patrol agents start at about $35,000 a year and can exceed $65,000 with overtime.
Aguilar said the Border Patrol had increased ethics training at its academy and set up anticorruption programs in the field, and he said it conducted new background checks on its agents every five years. "We are doing everything we can to root out these agents, these criminals, within our organization," Aguilar said.
But such efforts sometimes stand little chance against the greed of weak agents and the power of smugglers with money to spread around.
"They are going to try to find ways to breach our enforcement efforts," said Aguilar. "They will try to flank us, tunnel us, fly over and to corrupt our efforts."
While corruption is growing, the number of internal investigators overseeing a vastly expanding workforce is stagnant or even shrinking.
Aguilar, who must rely on other agencies to investigate the Border Patrol, has demanded more prompt and thorough investigations. Others complain that infighting within the Department of Homeland Security has hobbled enforcement.
(All the major border agencies are part of Homeland Security: Customs and Border Protection includes the Border Patrol, which polices the entire border except for ports of entry themselves, handled by Field Operations; Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which handles major border-related investigations including corruption cases; and Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles routine immigration matters.)
Michael Maxwell resigned this year as head of internal affairs for the Citizenship and Immigration Service after clashing repeatedly with Homeland Security over a shortage of resources. When he left, 3,000 allegations of misconduct, including 100 reports of bribery, were uninvestigated, he said.
"Nobody is seriously addressing corruption," Maxwell said. "The corruption is pervasive."
The Alvarez brothers
Though a tiny fraction of federal, state and local employees at the border have been corrupted, it takes only a few to help move large amounts of drugs or illegal immigrants.
Typical are the Alvarez brothers, Juan and Jose. Juan, a senior Border Patrol agent and canine handler at the station in Hebbronville, Texas, spearheaded an operation with his brother that allowed more than 30,000 kilos of marijuana into this country from 2003 to 2005. With Jose serving as an intermediary between his brother and a drug ring in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, the two netted $1.5 million in bribes. They bragged that they offered a "100% passage guarantee."
Their "green-light" tactics were so well developed that smugglers could have moved "nuclear weapons" over the border, said Asst. U.S. Atty. Marina Marmolejo.
She said in court that they had planned their operations down "to the very last minute," checking who was on border duty each day and what checkpoint surveillance equipment was in use, and making sure that agent Alvarez "was the only one out there manning traffic." It was, she said, "perfectly planned."
Until red flags started popping up. The brothers took trips to Las Vegas. A $20,000 cash deposit was made on a home. One brother bought a $2,500 Tag Heuer watch. A wife making $8 an hour suddenly opened a bank account with $7,000.
Juan was sentenced in February to 20 years in prison, Jose to 17. U.S. District Judge George Kazen was unmoved by their expressions of remorse. Across the Rio Grande, Kazen said, police corruption was destroying the local Mexican community, making it "not much better than Iraq." He warned that the U.S. side was becoming equally dangerous because of cops gone bad.
"You hate to see that cancer come here," he said.
The narcotics networks sometimes get direct help from local Mexican governments. Last year, federal prosecutors in Arizona charged Police Chief Ramon Robles-Cota of Sonoyta, Mexico, a small town near the Lukeville border crossing, with drug trafficking and bribery.
His swings into Arizona were chauffeured by one of his officers, Julio Cesar Lozano-Lopez, who admitted in federal court that he drove his chief into Arizona twice in 2005 to meet with Border Patrol agents and spread bribe money around. The chief remains free in Mexico.
In a 2005 wake-up call about the scope of border corruption, a major FBI-led sting in Arizona netted 71 guilty pleas by National Guard members, state prison guards and a federal inspector. Known as Operation Lively Green, the sting demonstrated that large numbers of government employees at the border were willing to take a bribe.
But nobody in government has measured all the criminal cases across every jurisdiction, agency and state.
The Times examined case files, public announcements and other public records dating to 2004 and interviewed officials in every U.S. attorney's district along the border as well as local and federal law enforcement agents and key county prosecutors.
Nearly half of the cases were associated with Lively Green and another major FBI sting in Arizona, code-named Double Driver, which caught 26 Arizona Department of Transportation clerks in 2004 who were issuing fraudulent driver's licenses.
Even excluding those stings, the number of indicted individuals still shows a steady growth: 17 in 2004, 35 in 2005 and 52 so far in 2006.
The longer-term trend also appears troubling. One of the few historical benchmarks is a General Accounting Office report on border corruption that counted all the cases of corrupt immigration, customs and Border Patrol agents during the mid-1990s.
The GAO identified 28 such cases in five years. The Times review of the same job categories turned up 38 cases in just the last three years.
Not just drugs
In the past, border corruption was mainly associated with narcotics. But increasingly, immigrant smugglers -- who command huge fees from people trying to cross illegally into the U.S. -- are also making payoffs.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 called attention the risks posed by human smuggling: Though no terrorists are known to have slipped across the Mexican border yet, many law enforcement officials are deeply worried that corrupt inspectors might let it happen.
"Who's to say a potential terrorist can't get in that way?" asks Jack W. Hook, a special agent in charge of the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general's office in San Diego.
Mario Alvarez and Samuel McClaren, senior U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Centro, Calif., helped launch a program that jailed dozens of such human smugglers. In March, they were told to come to El Centro headquarters to receive an award. Instead, they were arrested in front of stunned fellow agents.
They eventually pleaded guilty to taking cash bribes to release immigrants from detention centers and then falsify reports that they had returned the individuals to Mexico. They were caught when another Border Patrol agent obtained a telephone call list from a captured smuggler and found their number on it.
For every criminal indictment, there are many more cases that never reach public attention.
ICE is investigating 2,097 criminal cases, the agency says, and operates a hotline that received 7,500 allegations of internal misconduct in fiscal year 2005.
Most corruption cases involve federal employees, but local officials, including police, are also on the take.
Jesus Lorenzo Meza was hired three years ago as a police officer in Edinburg, Texas, even though -- unknown to the police chief -- Meza and four of his brothers had been running an elaborate drug smuggling operation for years, according to an indictment. They used boats and other means to move more than 15,000 pounds of marijuana and 500 kilos of cocaine.
Federal agents, quietly tracking their movements, logged more than 2,000 telephone conversations. But the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration never told Police Chief Quirino Munoz about their ongoing probe or warned him against hiring Meza, the chief has complained.
The task of arresting Meza was left to his fellow officers, who confronted him in April at the end of his night shift at the jail, seized his badge and locked him in a cell. Now, the chief said, his 100 officers are demoralized. Meza awaits trial.
Criticism of screening
The escalating corruption among federal employees has drawn charges that Homeland Security's screening and training of new employees is sloppy.
Oscar Ortiz, praised in a job performance review as a "remarkable" Border Patrol agent, became a partner in a smuggling ring that trafficked dozens of illegal migrants through the rugged backcountry east of San Diego.
Ortiz turned out to be an illegal immigrant himself, and had been detained in 2001 on suspicion of smuggling illegal immigrants in his car.
Fernando Arango of Rio Rico, Ariz., was hired as a customs inspector even though he had fled a drug smuggling charge 15 years earlier. Last year, he was charged with taking $50,000 to wave through the border checkpoint a recreational vehicle that he believed contained 200 kilograms of cocaine.
Though federal officials voice outrage over corruption, a sharp debate exists below the surface over whether resources are sufficient to combat the problem.
Some trace the problem to the merger of several agencies to create Homeland Security. Before the merger, the Customs Service alone had about 180 internal investigators for its 22,000 employees, said former Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner.
They were reorganized into ICE, which now has 160 investigators to oversee about 72,000 employees across three border-related agencies.
"It diminished our ability to be as vigilant and on top of the corruption issue as we were in the past," said Bonner, who fought to keep internal investigators in the new agency. "The whole thing became more fragmented."
The FBI is rushing more agents to the border to address the problem, said Burrus, the assistant director. In most of its field offices, the FBI allocates 20% of its agents to public corruption cases. Along the border, it is 40% to 60%. In recent years, it has boosted public-corruption staffing by a third.
"We are doing the best we can with the resources we have," Burrus said. "There will never be enough resources."
Even the most ambitious review of job applicants won't necessarily ferret out all of the problems. Many convicted agents have said financial pressures and other personal dilemmas drove them to cross the line. Smugglers often know how to push the right button.
A Border Patrol agent, part of a narcotics and immigrant network in El Paso, explained to a judge last year how smugglers sought to recruit him.
Agent Aldo Erives said the drug dealers knew that he hitchhiked to his classes at a local college.
"Come on," he said they told him, "you can buy a car if you pass a load through the checkpoint."
In the dryer
Sometimes, federal agents initiate the corruption.
In El Paso, Santiago Efrain, an ICE agent assigned to help guard a detention center, allegedly told the lawyer for a jailed Mexican smuggling suspect that for $20,000 he could get the charges dropped and the suspect safely back to Mexico. Efrain allegedly said he normally charged $30,000 for this kind of favor but was willing to cut a deal.
The Mexican lawyer alerted U.S. authorities, who sent an undercover agent to meet with Efrain at the local Starbucks. Efrain, wearing his duty uniform, allegedly accepted the $20,000 and was promptly arrested. He is awaiting trial.
Also yet to go to trial is David Duque Jr., a Border Patrol agent in Falfurrias, Texas, north of McAllen. He is charged with bribery for allegedly advising a government informant how to package cocaine in order to get it past the police dogs at the border checkpoints. He asked for $2,500 for every kilogram of cocaine that got through, authorities say.
According to the indictment, Duque instructed that payment should be left in his clothes dryer.
"Law enforcement officials have confirmed that Duque has a dryer located outside his residence on the porch," the indictment duly noted.
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