Even as it works to beef up security, the U.S. government is turning up hundreds of agents who may already be compromised
By STEWART M. POWELL
He was an ambitious drug smuggler with ties to a Mexican cartel; she a newly minted U.S. Border Patrol agent wooed into a romance with the trafficker.
"I asked her if she wanted to hang out with me, and she said yes," recalled Diego Esquivel, who, according to court testimony, hoped to start smuggling more lucrative shipments on his own. "I asked her what I could do to avoid being caught. ... She provided information."
Rookie agent Raquel "Kelly" Esquivel - no relation to Diego - is serving 15 years in a North Texas federal prison, one of many federal law enforcement personnel targeted by Mexican drug cartels in criminals' widening campaign to infiltrate or buy turncoats within the expanding ranks of 20,700 Border Patrol agents and 21,000 Customs and Border Protection officers stationed at airports, seaports and land crossings.
Investigations of border security personnel have expanded in each of the past four years, with at least 1,036 inquiries under way, including some 267 focused on suspected corruption. Additional corruption-related investigations are conducted by the FBI or internal affairs agents within the agencies.
Smugglers have become "more creative and clever in their illicit activities," said Charles Edwards, the Department of Homeland Security's acting inspector general. "They have turned to tempting DHS employees to assist in smuggling efforts for private gain."
Since 2004, 127 border security officers and support staff have been arrested, charged or convicted of corruption - including 95 so-called "mission compromising corruption" cases involving officers like Kelly Esquivel.
The former Del Rio sector agent knew Diego Esquivel from their school days. According to records, she advised him on at least three occasions in 2007 on what highway to take, what motion detectors to avoid, the timing of a local sheriff's visits to a boat ramp used for deliveries and the Border Patrol's deployment schedule. She even gave him a Border Patrol shirt and cap.
"I thought I could impress the guys in Mexico with it," the smuggler said.
He gave the cap and coveted intelligence to his boss in Mexico before being arrested on a last drug run north. Prosecutors believed he had overseen the shipment of as much as 5 tons of marijuana during a two-year period.
The smuggler and the agent were convicted of conspiracy to possess drugs with intent to distribute more than 2,200 pounds of marijuana. The former law enforcement officer provided what prosecutors deemed "sensitive law enforcement information" to her boyfriend. He pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against her.
The case illustrates that stepped-up efforts are needed to detect corruption and infiltration after border security agents are on the job, says Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, chairman of the oversight panel within the House Committee on Homeland Security. McCaul is asking Congress' investigative Government Accountability Office to look into corrupted border security to set the stage for an inquiry by his committee.
"The cartels buy off police chiefs and elected officials in Mexico, and now they're trying to buy off our Border Patrol agents who are our first line of defense," said McCaul.
Other border protection officers in Texas and elsewhere also have faced federal corruption charges in recent years.
CBP technician Martha Alicia Garnica, 44, is serving a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty last year to charges in El Paso that she conspired to import more than 220 pounds of marijuana and smuggle undocumented aliens and offered or paid $5,500 in bribes to Customs and Border Protection officers to turn a blind eye.
Former CBP officer Alex Moses Jr., of Eagle Pass, is serving five years of probation after pleading guilty to smuggling about 6 grams of cocaine from Mexico in 2008.
And former CBP officer Sergio Garza, 36, was sentenced in Laredo in 2008 to three years in prison for aiding the smuggling of an undocumented alien into the U.S. - one of at least 10 undocumented immigrants whom he admitted allowing into the country.
"We recognize that there are bad apples in the barrel," says Alan Bersin, head of Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol. "It is our job to prevent corruption, detect it when it happens (and) prosecute it after investigating it."
Lie detector test backlog
Yet challenges remain. Only 22 percent of new hires are subjected to lie detector tests amid expanding enlistments and shortages of polygraph specialists. The agency is expanding the number of polygraphers from 35 to 52, but it will be at least 2013 before it can polygraph all new hires.
Efforts also lag in identifying compromised law enforcement officers already within the ranks. An estimated 60 percent of veteran law enforcement officers initially fail periodic lie detector tests required every five years to verify honesty and backgrounds, officials said. Nearly 15,200 officers who have failed the routine polygraphs await follow-up background checks.
Even with all the precautions, senior officials concede they can only guess at the breadth of infiltration or corruption by Mexican cartels.
"I could not give you a specific number," concedes Bersin, the top border security official. "In the course of reviewing these (employees), we do come across cases in which people reveal themselves to either have outright criminal backgrounds or links to organized criminal elements based in Mexico or gangs based in the United States, which disqualifies them."