Cash for passage: CBP has 600 open investigations of cartel bribery

| 6/16/2011

As Mexican drug cartels have escalated their violent territorial war south of the border, they’ve increasingly and successfully bribed U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, the agency’s top official has acknowledged.

The news about the strikingly high number of corruption investigations came at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing last week – just days before a top Mexican official said he expected the cross-border trucking agreement to be signed in a few weeks.

The inspector general has more than 600 open investigations of CBP employees, mostly for corruption or suspicious behavior, Alan Bersin, CBP commissioner, told a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

The Border Patrol has more than doubled its number of agents to more than 20,700 agents today since 2004, Bersin told the panel. Investigations into CBP officers for corruption, civil rights complaints, suspicious activities and other categories have also doubled during that time frame.

In the next six months, the federal government is scheduled to add 1,000 new Border Patrol agents and 250 new CBP officers at ports of entry.

Charles Edwards, the Department of Homeland Security’s acting inspector general, said drug and human trafficking organizations have become more violent, dangerous and clever in recent years.

“The Mexican drug cartels today are more sophisticated and dangerous than any other organized criminal groups in our law enforcement experience,” Edwards told the subcommittee. “The obvious targets of corruption are Border Patrol agents and CBP officers. Less obvious are those employees who can provide access to sensitive law enforcement and intelligence information, allowing the cartels to track investigative activity or vet their members against law enforcement databases.”

Last year, President Obama signed into law the Anti-Border Corruption Act of 2010, which requires all CBP employees to be administered polygraph or lie detector tests before being hired.

The law also steps up internal investigations, and requires periodic updates to Congress on the progress of the investigations.

“I am committed to utilizing these tools to their fullest extent,” Bersin said.

Investigations have already resulted in prison sentences for some CBP agents.

Last year, former CBP technician Martha Garnica was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison after she pleaded guilty to conspiring to import more than 100 kilograms of marijuana into the U.S. She also admitted conspiring to smuggle undocumented aliens, three counts of bribery and one count of importation of a controlled substance.

In 2009, Border Patrol agents were suspicious of one of their fellow officers after the agent asked others about smuggling interdiction technology, according to the Homeland Security OIG. An investigation revealed that the agent had sold sensor maps, trail maps, landmarks and terminology used by the Border Patrol to a purported drug trafficker.

The agent pleaded guilty last year to one count of bribery, and was sentenced in May to 20 months in prison, 36 months of supervised release, and restitution of $5,500.