The NYT recently reported that about 200 Homeland Security employees received nearly $15 million in bribes while employed over a ten year period on the US border.
There are many ways for traffickers to conceal what they smuggle but, according to recent testimony by a Mexican cartel enforcer operating near the Texan border, the best way usually involves bribing US border agents.
“The large loads that pass by the checkpoint, pass by Migration, are all taken care of in advance,” the witness told El Universal. “The car greets the border agents and gives them an envelope filled with money. They already know what car model and color to expect, and they let it pass.”
US border agents take more than just cash. According to one report, they have accepted sexual favors, cars, drugs, prescription pills, electronics and, in one case, “100 egg rolls for an immigration service officer in exchange for making someone a naturalized citizen”. One agent was paid $600,000 to let 700 people into the country.
Other forms of payment included ivory, gift certificates, clothing, vacations, land, horses, chickens and mules.
How extensive is the problem?
According the NYT reporter, those who take bribes at the border make up “a very small percentage” of the total number of border agents.
But in truth, no one really knows how corrupt US border authorities are. At least one report indicates that this is just the tip of the iceberg; that it’s not that uncommon for agents to fall into temptation.
The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) reported 153 cases of corruption investigations against US border guards, most of them with US Customs and Border Protection. Most of these cases involved agents with 10 or less years of service, with drug trafficking the most common crime, followed by bribery and human smuggling.
Worse still, the actual number of corrupt acts is vastly understated. An investigation by the Texas Observer reported that much border corruption went unpunished. According to the article, the supervisor of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “became known for hoarding cases and then leaving them uninvestigated”. It found that the CBP “often refused offers of help from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies” involved in border patrol.
James Tomsheck, the former head of CBP’s internal affairs division from 2006 to 2014, told reporters, “It was very clear to me…that Home Security 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 [themselves].”
More than just graft
What makes corruption on the border more pernicious than most other forms is the security risk it poses for US residents. Not just the never-ending flow of drugs, contraband and undocumented immigrants that pour over and under the border. Sensitive information is often passed to traffickers. Green cards and other official documents are forged. One agent was found to have handed over maps of hidden underground sensors, border gate lock combinations and the locations of key traffic checkpoints.
In a word, corrupt employees endanger the nation’s security and welfare.
“It is irrelevant to talk about the construction of walls or even more severe measures, if the integrity of the immigration system can not be ensured when there is fraud and corruption within the ranks of its own employees,” said an internal affairs official with Homeland Security
Many of the problems now faced by Homeland Security relates to inadequate pre-hiring screening programs. Until recently, HS did not require job applicants to take a polygraph test.
A report released in May 2016 said that for decades, the Border Patrol relied solely on complaints filed by employees, agencies and the public to detect graft. By the time corruption was flagged, it could have festered for decades.
Given the vast quantities of drugs and contraband that cross the border – and the obvious fact that criminals are constantly trying to infiltrate – this is troubling. Corrupting law enforcement agencies at the border is “part of organized crime’s business model.”
R. Gil Kerlkiowske, the Customs Commissioner, admits that polygraphs have helped the agency “avoid hiring people with significant problems”. The biggest challenge at this point, he said, is “all the people who are already on board.
The frontier as laboratory
As security has tightened – much of the border is already lined with fences, drones and sensors – bribes have gone up notably. Yes, the region has always been awash in illicit activity, but officials claim that the stakes are now much higher.
“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.”
Looked at differently, the longest border in the world between the developed and developing worlds – an area of economic dynamism, teeming contradiction, and vibrant political and cultural change – also divides two very different ways of thinking. In the north, an Anglo-Saxon adversarial “law and order” mentality. In the south, a syncretic “situational” fatalism that often veers into a “pay-to-play” form of justice.
The big question now is how these two cultures will impact each other; and how flesh-and-blood subjects will fare in the face of so much enticement. For many of the factors that have fed corruption in Mexico are now appearing with more frequency north of the border: inequality, lack of opportunity and poverty.
“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 2016.
As more US agents are lured by Mexican cartels, the temptations will only grow.