Rise in bribery tests border security
EL PASO - Bribery of federal and local officials by Mexican smugglers is rising sharply and with it the fear that a culture of corruption is taking hold along the 2,000-mile border from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego.
At least 200 public employees have been charged with helping to move narcotics or illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican border since 2004, at least double the illicit activity documented in prior years, a Los Angeles Times examination of public records has found. Thousands more are under investigation.
Criminal charges have been brought against Border Patrol agents, local police, a county sheriff, motor vehicle clerks, an FBI supervisor, immigration examiners, prison guards, school district officials and uniformed personnel of every branch of the U.S. military, among others. The vast majority have pleaded guilty or been convicted.
Officials in Washington and along the border worry about what lies below the surface. "It is the tip of the iceberg," said James "Chip" Burrus, assistant director of the criminal investigation division of the FBI. "There is a lot more down there. The problem is you don't know what you don't know."
What is known, from court cases, other public records and dozens of interviews, is alarming enough.
Some schemes have displayed considerable sophistication among Mexican drug lords, and their success shows a discouraging willingness by public employees to take tainted money.
Drug rings once planted a mole in a federal agency, and officials worry others are lurking.
The rings have entangled U.S. agents in sexual relationships.
And they have amassed files on individual U.S. agents, with details about their finances, families and habits, even the kind of bicycles their kids ride.
"They hire guys to watch the narcotics agents," says Lee Morgan II, who retired as the head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Douglas this year. "They know what time we get up in the morning, when we go to work, what kind of car your wife drives."
Paul Charlton, U.S. attorney for Arizona since 2001, is convinced border corruption is worsening and jeopardizing the trust that U.S. communities place in their government.
"The concern for me is that we can very quickly develop a culture that would be more accepting of that kind of misconduct," Charlton said. "You only have to look south of the border to see what happens when a certain level of corruption is accepted."
Officials warn that the risk of public corruption will grow as Congress and the Bush administration respond to public demands to improve border security.
Customs and Border Protection, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, wants to add 10,000 employees to its workforce of 42,000, most of whom are already stationed along the Mexican border.
"If you increase the number of people on the border, you are going to get more corruption," the FBI's Burrus said.