The regional chief of the Mexican immigration service in Tijuana and two deputies have been dismissed and charged with corruption in a growing scandal involving an alleged network of Mexican federal officials allied with immigrant smugglers.
The Mexican Secretariat of the Interior is investigating allegations that the immigration service delegation in Tijuana earned as much as $70,000 a week for providing safe passage through the border region for Chinese, Central American and other non-Mexican immigrants. A well-informed Mexican official said that further revelations and arrests are likely.
The corruption has become so systemic that some Mexican immigration inspectors allegedly traveled elsewhere in Mexico to escort groups of U.S.-bound illegal immigrants by plane to Tijuana, according to a report released last week by a veteran human rights activist.
A law enforcement source in the report described the practices of such brazen "agent-smugglers." The agent "travels to Cancun, for example, and brings 20 or 30 people. When the agent gets to the immigration checkpoint at the airport, the agent himself pays his colleagues. Then he transports (the migrants) in his own vehicles. There is one who they call 'the Orient Express,' because he brings Asians from Cancun."
Alleged misconduct by immigration administrators in Tijuana recently provoked a complaint from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City in the form of a diplomatic note of protest, according to Mexican officials. Asked to comment, a U.S. Embassy representative said only that the U.S. government "expressed its concern about the allegations to the government of Mexico, which advised that it would take appropriate steps."
The Mexican federal attorney general's office Friday arraigned Virgilio Alberto Munoz Perez, the regional immigration delegate and a well-known former newspaper editor in Tijuana, on charges including abuse of authority. Munoz's former deputy and a former chief inspector, who remains a fugitive, were also dismissed and charged.
The crackdown bolsters suspicions expressed last year by U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agents when the flow of Chinese border-crossers through the Baja corridor escalated: Despite pledges to crack down on non-Mexican illegal immigrants, some Mexican authorities appear to be an integral part of the big-money smuggling industry at the border.
The revelations come during a period of turbulence and violence in Mexico that has made law enforcement corruption a top issue of the August presidential election.
Last week, human rights activist Victor Clark Alfaro of the Bi-National Center for Human Rights released a 20-page investigative report in which law enforcement insiders and smugglers give a detailed look at illicit money making in the regional branch of the National Institute of Migration, the agency's formal title.
"The enrichment has been scandalous and ominous," Clark stated, accusing immigration officials of treating migrants like "merchandise."
Clark said he spoke Friday to Interior Secretary Jorge Carpizo MacGregor, whose ministry oversees the immigration service. Carpizo assured him that investigators are scrutinizing the more than 15 federal officials accused of misconduct in the report, Clark said.
According to the report, titled "Old Forms and New Methods of Corruption,"the past 18 months have seen a boom in corruption attributable to immigration delegate Munoz and his predecessor, Fabio Gaxiola Paredes, who served during 1993.
Instead of extorting the migrants themselves, top officials and inspectors assigned to the high-volume hubs of Tijuana's migratory network--the city bus station, Abelardo L. Rodriguez International Airport, the border ports of entry--cemented connections directly with the kingpins of smuggling "mafias," according to the report.
These criminal rings specialize in illegal immigrants from China, Central America and India, and earn up to $250,000 a week, according to one estimate. They control an array of safehouses, vehicles, drivers, guides, recruiters and other foot soldiers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Although non-Mexicans account for about 10% of arrests made by U.S. border agents, they are the most lucrative of human traffic--and therefore have much better chances of crossing the border without getting caught. Chinese pay smugglers up to $30,000 apiece for their lengthy journey, compared to the average $350 fare for Mexicans traveling from Tijuana to Los Angeles.
In addition to accepting bribes and looking the other way, Clark charged, officials actively participate in wrongdoing. They allegedly protect preferred smugglers from incursions by rivals, shake down non-Mexican immigrants with threats of deportation and detain unsuccessful migrants who are returned to Tijuana by U.S. agents in order to "sell" potential clients to smugglers, the report said.
The sum total has been the "opening, protection and consolidation of a migratory route of foreigners transported by smuggling mafias from south to north, abetted by immigration officials," Clark concluded.