Smugglers have long made use of the expansive US-Mexico border to avoid American authorities posted along the frontier.
But official border crossings in places like El Paso and San Diego are still focal points for illegal narcotics transiting the border headed to points north.
Traffickers have developed a variety of ways to obscure and conceal their wares, but, according to numerous US investigations and the word of a cartel enforcer operating just across the border from Texas, US agents charged with patrolling the border are frequently abetting the trade they’re meant to stop.
“The agents are bought,” Jorge, an alias for a mid-level cartel boss in La Línea, the armed wing of the Juárez cartel, told Mexican newspaper El Universal in an interview late last month.
Jorge, according to what he said in his interview, acts as a link between the Juárez cartel and Barrio Azteca, a gang that started in Texas prisons in the late 1980s, joined up with the Juárez cartel around 2000, and now operates in the US and Mexico. He also purportedly handles recruiting people for various jobs in the US, including Customs and Border Protection agents.
“The large loads pass by the checkpoint, pass by Migration, they are well arranged,” Jorge told El Universal. “The car greets them and it gives them an envelope with a lot of money, and already they are told what colour and what brand is the car coming with the load and they let it pass.”
It would be hard to verify to what extent Jorge’s organisation has infiltrated and co-opted US border authorities in the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso area, but numerous investigations and convictions handed down over the last several years indicate that it’s not uncommon for US border agents to cross the line into criminal activity.
The Center for Investigative Reporting documented 153 cases of corruption investigations against US border officers, the majority of them members of US Customs and Border Protection.
The vast majority of the cases cited by the CIR involved agents with 10 or fewer years of service, with drug trafficking the most common crime, followed by bribery and human smuggling. Texas, California, and Arizona, respectively, had the most incidents.
According to a 2008 New York Times report, a rise in corruption investigations involving border agents came just as the Homeland Security Department was carrying out a hiring surge in order address illegal immigration.
In fiscal year 2007, the Homeland Security Department inspector general had 79 open investigations in the four states on the US-Mexico border, more than double the 31 cases open in 2003, The Times noted in mid-2008.
According to a Homeland Security Department internal report, done in 2012 and reported on by the CIR in 2013, increased enforcement efforts had prompted criminal groups to target US officials for corruption and bribery, just as internal conflicts hindered the Customs and Border Protection agency’s ability to police misconduct within its own ranks.
“As the department has bolstered border security by adding thousands of new agents, expanding its Southwest border fence and deploying sophisticated surveillance technology,” the CIR reported, “Mexican crime syndicates increasingly have turned to bribing agency employees and have attempted to infiltrate U.S. law enforcement ranks with their own operatives to avoid those obstacles.”
“This is a small minority of the workforce, but it represents a threat to our national security,” the DHS’ internal report stated, according to the CIR.
In just the first half of this year, several convictions were handed down against former CBP personnel.
In February, a former CBP officer based in Arizona was sentenced to eight years for conspiracy to import more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana and accepting bribes. In May, a former CBP supervisory officer was found guilty in El Paso, Texas, of accepting bribes and aiding and abetting immigrant smuggling.
More recently, the federal government has turned “a laser focus” on the Texas-Mexico border area, identifying it as a focal point for corruption involving the flow of people and goods across the international border.
“I think when you look at a number of the towns that are down by the border, there’s certainly some poverty issues and that breeds corruption,” Christopher Combs, the FBI special agent in charge in San Antonio, said in May this year.
According to San Antonio ABC affiliate KSAT, the San Antonio FBI office opened 23 corruption investigations, followed by 51 in 2013, and 64 in 2014.
“Whether it’s local, state and federal, we’re looking at them all. Within the past two years, we’ve indicted people in each one of those levels,” Combs added. “So it’s not just a local or a county or a state problem, it’s also a federal problem, as well.”