Mexican Drug Traffickers Step Up Efforts to Corrupt Border Agents

Randal C. Archibold, MSNBC, December 18, 2009

At first, Luis F. Alarid seemed well on his way to becoming a customs agency success story. {snip}

But, early last year, after just a few months as a customs inspector, he was waving in trucks from Mexico carrying loads of marijuana and illegal immigrants. He pocketed some $200,000 in cash that paid for, as far as the government could tell, a $15,000 motorcycle, flat-screen televisions, a laptop computer and more.

Some investigators believe that Mr. Alarid, 32, who was paid off by a Mexican smuggling crew that included several members of his family, intended to work for smugglers all along. At one point, Mr. Alarid, who was sentenced to seven years in federal prison in February, told investigators that he had researched just how much prison time he might get for his crimes and believed, as investigators later reported, that he could do it “standing on his head.”

Mr. Alarid’s case is not the only one that has law enforcement officials worried that Mexican traffickers–facing beefed-up security on the border that now includes miles of new fencing, floodlights, drones, motion sensors and cameras–have stepped up their efforts to corrupt the border police.

They research potential targets, anticorruption investigators said, exploiting the cross-border clans and relationships that define the region, offering money, sex, whatever it takes. But, with the border police in the midst of a hiring boom, law enforcement officers believe that traffickers are pulling out the stops, even soliciting some of their own operatives to apply for jobs.

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Infiltration

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During a federal trial of a recently hired Border Patrol agent this year, one drug trafficker with ties to organized crime in Mexico described how he had enticed the agent, a close friend from high school in Del Rio, Tex., who was entering the training academy, to join his crew smuggling tons of marijuana into Texas.

The agent, Raquel Esquivel, 25, was sentenced to 15 years in prison last week for tipping smugglers on where border guards were and suggesting how they could avoid getting caught.

The smuggler, Diego Esquivel, who is not related to the agent, said he told her that her decision to enter the academy was a good career move and, he said, “I thought it was good for me, too.”

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But the battle for survival among cartels in Mexico, in which thousands of people, mostly in the drug trade or fighting it, have been killed, has only led drug traffickers to redouble their efforts to get their drugs to market in the United States.

Exploiting ties

Along the border, many residents have family members on both sides. Generations of residents have been accustomed to passing back and forth relatively freely, often daily, and exchanging goods, legal or not.

Federal officials believe that drug traffickers are seeking to exploit those ties more than ever, urging family and friends on the American side to take advantage of the hiring rush for customs agents. The majority of agents and officers stay out of crime. But smuggling can be appealing. The average officer makes $70,000 a year, a sum that can be dwarfed by what smugglers pay to get just a few trucks full of drugs into the United States.

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In years past, new hires rarely served in the areas where they had grown up, but recently that practice has been relaxed somewhat to attract more recruits, said Thomas Frost, an assistant inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Frost and other internal affairs veterans say that has made it easier for traffickers.

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The F.B.I. is planning to add three multiagency corruption squads to the 10 already on the Southwest border, and the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, the department’s primary investigative arm, has also added agents. But such hiring has not kept up with the growth of the agency they are entrusted to keep watch over.

Over all, arrests of Customs and Border Protection agents and officers have increased 40 percent in the last few years, outpacing the 24 percent growth in the agency itself, according to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office. The office has 400 open investigations, each often spanning a few years or more.

National security threat

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Most corrupt officers gravitate to smuggling illegal immigrants, rationalizing that is less onerous than getting involved with drugs, investigators say.

But Mr. Byers and others point to a string of drug-related cases that make them wonder if the conventional wisdom is holding.

Margarita Crispin, a former customs inspector in El Paso, pleaded guilty in April 2008 and received a 20-year prison sentence in what the F.B.I. considers one of the more egregious corruption cases.

Through a succession of boyfriends and other associates with ties to major drug trafficking organizations in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Ms. Crispin helped smuggle thousands of pounds of marijuana over three years, almost from the time she began working for the agency.

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Mother, daughter team

Just last month, Martha Garnica, a 12-year Customs and Border Protection employee near El Paso, was charged with bribery and marijuana smuggling in concert with traffickers in Ciudad Juárez.

Ms. Garnica’s 21-year-old daughter had also sought a job with the Border Patrol, in what investigators deemed a suspicious move given her mother’s alleged involvement in the drug trade. The daughter, testifying in court last week, admitted she had lied on the application both about being a United States citizen and about owning property in Mexico. A spokesman for the United States Attorney’s Office in El Paso declined to comment.

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