How Mexico Cartels Corrupt US Border Agents

January 20, 2016

An investigative report by the Texas Observer last month revived longstanding concerns about US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), calling into question whether the nation’s largest law enforcement agency is effectively combating corruption and infiltration by criminal organizations.

In a 7000-word exposé, reporters Melissa del Bosque and Patrick Michels chronicled various instances of misbehavior by agents at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including purchasing weapons for criminal groups, abusing confidential informants, and taking bribes to allow human smugglers and drug traffickers to cross the US-Mexico border.

Furthermore, the Texas Observer investigation indicated that corruption at CBP frequently went unpunished. According to the article, the department in charge of overseeing CBP “became known for hoarding cases and then leaving them uninvestigated,” and “the office often refused offers of help from the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and other law enforcement agencies that also keep watch over customs officers and Border Patrol agents.”

James Tomsheck, the former head of CBP’s internal affairs division from 2006 to 2014, told the reporters, “It was very clear to me…that DHS was attempting to hide corruption, and was attempting to control the number of arrests [of CBP personnel on corruption charges] so as not to create a political liability for DHS.”

Del Bosque and Michels focused closely on a few particularly egregious examples, but they also cited a recent report by an advisory panel appointed by the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which found that “true levels of corruption within CBP are not known.” The panel also stated that CBP “remains vulnerable to corruption that threatens its effectiveness and [US] national security.”

InSight Crime Analysis

For Mexican organized crime groups, del Bosque told InSight Crime, attempting to corrupt law enforcement agencies working on the border is “part of their business model.” And she said that contrary to what one might expect, those most susceptible to corruption are “not people who have just joined the agency. It’s usually long-time agents who are more vulnerable.”

Del Bosque said that corrupt relationships often start off with agents taking small bribes for small favors. Over time, these connections can escalate into more serious affairs. “People get closer to retirement and feel like they haven’t been compensated for their work,” del Bosque explained. “There’s a longer period of time for people to develop relationships.”

An analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting appears to bear out this conclusion. Of the 153 cases of CBP corruption reviewed by the organization, 52 of the accused agents had between one and five years of service, 47 had between six and ten years, and only three had less than one year of service at the time of their arrest.

Many agents hail from border regions, and have family or friendly ties with people in those communities. Del Bosque said that it’s not unusual for people who get involved in criminal activities to attempt to recruit acquaintances working for law enforcement. “Whichever cartel controls that territory, they’re all involved in corrupting agents,” she said.

In 2010, while he was still in charge of CBP internal affairs, Tomsheck warned the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee, “There is a concerted effort on the part of transnational criminal organizations to infiltrate, through hiring initiatives, and to compromise our existing agents and officers.”

One example, reported by Andrew Becker for Mother Jones magazine, is the case of Margarita Crispin, who joined CBP in El Paso, Texas in 2003. Becker wrote that “investigators from the Department of Homeland Security suspect she’d been recruited by a friend with ties to the Juárez cartel before she took the job. Almost immediately after completing her training and putting on her badge, she began to help traffickers ‘cross loads’… By the time she was arrested in July 2007, Crispin is thought to have let more than 2,200 pounds of marijuana into the United States.”

A more recent example is the case of Joel Luna, a six-year Border Patrol veteran working in Brownsville, Texas, who was recently charged in connection with an apparent cartel-related murder in the area. According to the Los Angeles Times, investigators in the case suspect Luna may have been tied to the Gulf Cartel through his brothers.

The huge size of CBP and its relative lack of oversight personnel make the agency especially susceptible to corruption. With roughly 60,000 agents, officers and specialists, CBP employs more law enforcement officers than the New York Police Department (34,500) and the Los Angeles Police Department (10,000) combined. In addition, the number of border agents has been growing at a breakneck pace, nearly doubling over the past decade.

However, as del Bosque and Michels reported, CBP for many years had no criminal investigators who could investigate corruption and other abuse within its ranks. Instead, some 200 investigators from the DHS Office of Inspector General were tasked with overseeing all 220,000 DHS employees — a ratio of around one investigator for every 1,000 workers. “In comparison,” the reporters wrote, “the FBI has 250 internal affairs investigators for its 13,000 agents” — a ratio of about one for every 50 officers. Only recently did CBP receive its own investigators, but it still doesn’t have enough to effectively fight corruption, according to the panel appointed to study CBP.

Del Bosque told InSight Crime that hiring more internal investigators and performing more thorough background checks on new recruits could help stem corruption and infiltration at CBP. She also suggested that rotating agents through different posts on the border might prevent the development of corrupt relationships between agents and criminals.

But perhaps the most effective means of reducing corruption would be to continue efforts to investigate and prosecute officers already under suspicion or working with criminal groups. Not only would this send a message that official misbehavior will not be tolerated, it would also allow CBP to get a better handle on the effects corruption has on the agency’s operations.

“That’s part of the problem,” del Bosque said, “we don’t know exactly how widespread it is.”