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Cartels and Corruption

DRUG CARTELS have had a crippling effect on the Mexican law enforcement structure and the safety of several areas on the Southwest border. But cartels have also infiltrated the United States, and in an alarming trend, they are gaining a stronger presence in federal law enforcement agencies. And where cartels are succeeding in getting their people and goods into the country, so too could other criminal groups, such as terrorists.

Take the case of Margarita Crispin. She was a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent who assisted drug traffickers by waving their vehicles through checkpoints, and she was compensated for her troubles with about $5 million in bribes. Crispin was arrested in 2007, and she pled guilty in 2008 to conspiring to import drugs and for abusing the public trust. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

CBP, which along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is at the front lines of securing the border, was called out at a recent Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing for having a corruption problem that is “magnitudes worse” than other agencies, although several federal, state, and local agencies are affected by the cartel’s infiltration attempts.

The problem may be exacerbated by the extent to which the agency has been forced to expand its work force since 9-11, going from about 9,000 border patrol agents in 2001 to approximately 20,000 in 2009. CBP is now the largest uniformed federal law enforcement agency in the United States.

More than 100 CBP law enforcement officers have been arrested or indicted on “mission-critical corruption charges,” including drug trafficking, alien smuggling, and money laundering, testified James F. Tomsheck, assistant commissioner at CBP’s Office of Internal Affairs, during the hearing.

Although Tomsheck says that when he first joined CBP in 2006, most of the arrested agents had about 10 years of service, the trend is now toward new hires being arrested as well.

Although new agents are supposed to be vetted through background checks and given polygraph tests, budgetary limitations have prevented the agency from hiring enough examiners to keep up with the workload. As a result, Tomsheck said, only about 10 percent of new hires were actually being tested up until last year, when the number rose to nearly 15 percent—but that was more from a slowdown in hiring than an uptick in the ability to do the tests.

Of those who receive polygraphs, about 60 percent are deemed unsuitable for service. So the fact that up to 90 percent of new hires are going without the tests is quite alarming, said Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) during the hearing. But the agency would need about 50 more agent examiners to expand the polygraph program, Tomsheck said. And due to rigid federal requirements, those polygraph administrators would have to be full-time employees, not contractors.

On top of the backlog for new-hire screening is the need to revisit the status of more seasoned agents. One way CBP attempts to combat corruption among more experienced agents is by having “periodic reinvestigations” of its agents every five years. However, Tomsheck said, the agency currently has a backlog of 10,000 agents whose reinvestigations are overdue.

There is no threshold amount when it comes to how much it takes to corrupt an officer. While Crispin received millions, Tomsheck said that many officers have compromised themselves for “remarkably small amounts of money.”

Criminal recruiters seek out agents who have vulnerabilities, such as those prone to infidelity or alcohol abuse, for example, testified Thomas M. Frost, assistant inspector general for investigations at the Department of Homeland Security, CBP’s parent agency. He added, “They target [vulnerable agents], and begin a relationship, a further relationship that starts with small favors and expands until they’re committed to these levels of corruption that we believe are in some cases traitorous.”

The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, ICE, and the Transportation Security Administration were among the agencies mentioned as likely targets for attempted cartel infiltration. Frost stated that when it comes to protecting homeland security, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services is the area of most concern: “Immigration benefits are such a valuable commodity to enemies of the United States, whether they’re drug trafficking organizations or other persons who would do us harm. And the ability of lower-level employees to make decisions on immigration benefits is disproportionate—similar, I would say, to CBP’s authorities at the border where you have your average employee who’s making decisions about whether someone can come in the country. Certainly with immigration benefits, the impact is even more lasting and profound,” Frost said.

Several initiatives are underway to fight cartel infiltration. Kevin L. Perkins, assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division at the FBI, cited 12 FBI border corruption task forces spread out along the Southwest border. The task forces share information with the FBI’s Southwest Intelligence Group, the El Paso Intelligence Center, and the Mexican Legal Attaches.

However, Tomsheck said that budgeting is still a chief issue. “I have concerns that at the end of the day, resources being what they are in all of those agencies, that if we are working in a perfectly harmonious way, we still may be short of what’s needed.”