MEXICO & THE AMERICAS

Report finds little progress at curbing Border Patrol abuses

The system for disciplining abusive or corrupt Border Patrol agents and officers is so flawed that it hardly acts to deter criminal misconduct in the nation's largest law enforcement agency, according to an independent task force that investigated the problems.

The team's 49-page final report will be submitted Tuesday to a homeland security advisory council that commissioned it, and then given to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. A copy was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Critics long have accused U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of the Border Patrol, of ignoring or downplaying abuses by agents and officers, including shootings of unarmed people, and of doing too little to stem systematic corruption by drug cartels, smugglers and other criminals. 

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The report argues that corrupt Border Patrol agents "pose a national security threat" by failing to protect the country from the threat of international terrorism.

Cartels and other groups “attempt to target, recruit and corrupt law enforcement personnel who then can facilitate the smuggling of drugs and people and other criminal activity,” the report states. “Such corrupt officials can assist the cartels by providing intelligence and facilitating the movement of large amounts of contraband across our borders and into our country."

On average, an investigation of alleged serious misconduct by a Border Patrol agent takes more than a year and a half, “far too long to be an effective deterrent," the report states.

The "discipline system is broken," it concludes.

The 10-member "integrity advisory panel" was headed by William J. Bratton, the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and now the police commissioner of New York City, and Karen Tandy, the former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection employs more than 60,000 people, including 44,000 armed law enforcement officers. It was created by merging agencies in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The latest report follows an interim report from the same group last spring that recommended 14 changes at Customs and Border Protection in an effort to curb corruption and other problems.

"Unfortunately ... implementation of the principal interim recommendations needed to harden CPB against threats of public corruption have not been completed," the new document says.

The report makes 39 additional recommendations, contending they are needed to eliminate "the risks of endemic corruption" and the use of "unlawful and unconstitutional use of force."

Officials said the agency failed to ramp up its office of internal affairs and to accelerate the investigation of alleged wrongdoing.

Last year, Johnson gave additional criminal investigative authority to the internal affairs office, but it has not hired investigators quickly enough, the report says.

It recommends that internal affairs investigators should study patterns in use-of-force incidents to identify repeat offenders among agents and officers.

The panel concluded that the current system, which focuses on agents who use force more than three times in six months, to be insufficient.

The report also recommends that the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection should have the authority to immediately fire or suspend without pay agents and officers who have committed "egregious, serious and flagrant misconduct," such as accepting bribes.

Currently, agents and officers are allowed to keep their jobs while under investigation.

The panel also suggested adding analysts to evaluate employee data for signs of corruption and more closely watching the conduct of Border Patrol agents stopping traffic at checkpoints in the U.S. interior far from the border.

It also urges expanding the use of a satellite-based monitoring system that tracks movements of Border Patrol trucks, boats and aircraft. The system, it says, also should be used to find agents who may be using equipment to help drug smugglers and human traffickers.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesman declined comment, saying the report had not been officially released.

Chris Rickerd, an expert on border security at the American Civil Liberties Union, hailed the report as "an urgent call for action at the nation’s largest police force, which has been plagued by integrity failures, including excessive force,"

The ACLU has called for Border Patrol agents to wear cameras and release more information about their use of U.S. checkpoints far from the Northern and Southwest borders.

Shawn Moran, a vice president of the Border Patrol union, said investigations of agents should be resolved more quickly, but he disagreed with many other recommendations from the report.

The commissioner should not be given broad powers to fire or suspend agents without pay, he said, because it could be used to silence critics. Also, Moran argued, agents who use force frequently should not be singled out for more scrutiny.

“Are agents supposed to hesitate and not defend themselves because someone set up an arbitrary threshold above which someone will be scrutinized?” Moran said in a telephone interview from San Diego.

“All this is going to do is further demoralize agents and create a disincentive to agents to go out there and do their job,” he said.

Arrests of border agents and customs officers exceed, on a per capita basis, arrests at other law enforcement agencies, according to the report. More than 170 agency employees have faced corruption charges since 2005.

On Nov. 18, for example, Border Patrol agent Juan Pimentel was stopped while driving north of Tucson by an Arizona state trooper who allegedly found four black suitcases packed with cocaine in a rented Ford Expedition.

Pimentel told authorities he was offered $50,000 to drive the cocaine to Chicago, according to a criminal complaint. On Dec. 30, Pimentel pleaded not guilty to intent to distribute cocaine, carrying a firearm during a drug crime, and bribery of a public official.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

Follow me @ByBrianBennett on Twitter.

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