How Mexican Drug Barons Are Buying Off the Feds

By Pancho Montana 04/03/11

As Mexico's drug wars heat up, powerful drug lords have doled out milions in bribes to infiltrate American customs officers and border police. Last year alone, 1,000 American agents were investigated on corruption charges. But many more are still operating undercover.


Cartels save $100 million a week to bribe vulnerable Americans

For decades, corruption and bribery have been daily facts of life in Mexico, greasing the gears of the country’s daily operations. The drug war has given free rein to this culture. Handsomely paid and protected by various cartels, crooked local cops often warn gangs of impending long years since a bloody drug war erupted in Mexico, spilling over the border into the United States and exposing citizens of both countries to unprecedented levels of violence and bloodshed. In the past four years at least 35,000 people and counting are estimated by Mexican officials to have been murdered in the narco wars. Their bodies, often mutilated and left lying on the street corners of border towns like Juarez, Tijuana, Ensenada and San Luis Nogales, are collected and disposed of by the authorities and life carries on. Thousands of tons of illicit drugs—with a value estimated by the U.S. government at between $18 and $39 billion a year—cross the border into the United States each year. Bribes and kickbacks on the Mexican side have long facilitated the flow. Rival cartels are constantly on the lookout for attacks from their rivals or the military. Mexican government officials are routinely bribed or threatened to keep them quiet. Uncooperative police chiefs, judges and politicians are hunted down and killed.

But what’s perhaps more surprising, and certainly less discussed, is how bribery and corruption have also afflicted even the highest levels of law enforcement on the American side of the border, infecting everyone from customs officials, to policemen and D.E.A. agents, to officers much higher up the food chain. According to witnesses testifying to a Senate homeland security subcommittee in 2010, Mexican drug lords have assembled mountains of cash specifically earmarked to bribe U.S. personnel. Part of the problem is that America sees itself as incorruptible and thus immune to enticements from the cartels, so internal investigations can be spotty. Mexicans take bribed cops, officials and politicians for granted, while Americans are more reluctant to ponder the possibility of corruption in their ranks.

Inside Mexico (according to Spanish news agency E.F.E.) the drug syndicates have access to a slush fund of around $100 million per month, which they dip into at will to bribe cops, federal agents, judges and other officials. The payouts allow the cartels to keep the authorities largely at bay, and yo operate with relative freedom. And while day-to-day corruption is certainly less prevalent in America than it is here, plenty of U.S. government employees have been convinced to take Mexican traffickers up on their lucrative offers.

In 2006, employees of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (C.B.P.) were investigated in 245 separate suspected corruption cases, according to the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) employees were the subjects of 66 equivalent investigations. By the year ending October 2010, C.B.P.’s corruption cases had risen to more than 770 and I.C.E.´s to more than 220 (and most of this increase has come since 2008). That means around a thousand U.S. agents along the Mexican border were suspected by their own side of corruption last year—and that's not counting the many others who may have managed safely to evade scrutiny.

It’s not merely money that has led to this—American defensiveness has also played a role. 9/11 did more to encourage the Mexican drug war than most people realize. The world really changed after that tragic event; American paranoia about the outside world caused officials to seal up their borders as tightly as possible, making it more and more difficult for aliens to enter the U.S. illegally. Now there were towers, sensors, heat-sensitive night vision cameras, low-flying drones and many more border patrol trucks—cruising around with those welcoming Confederate flags rippling from their antennas.

All this blowback forced the cartels to get creative. You’ve probably heard of some of the wackier methods that drug-runners have employed: the maze of tunnels under the border, the fleet of submarines, and the use of ramps to simply drive loaded trucks over the wall. But the most serious operators realized that a more sustainable model was needed. Finding and targeting U.S. officials to corrupt became increasingly imperative for Mexican smugglers—who are able, after all, to call upon bottomless wallets to tempt their prey.

Gangs including the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels—the latter headed by the notorious Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman—began to change the way business was done at the border. To increase the supply of drugs into the U.S., they moved their lucrative operations into Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, the busiest border crossing in the continent. Every day at Laredo thousands of trucks and cars—far too many for custom officials to check—inch through the crowded crossing, staffed by tired customs officers and bored soldiers. Rather than taking risks trying to pierce America’s most patrolled perimeter, the cartels decided the smartest way to transport their booty was via the most popular and visible route.

Trafficking, as any narco can tell you, is an exercise in probability. It's the trafficker’s job to improve the odds by upping volume and lowering risks. As you’re nervously planning to go through a border crossing—the kind where 200 cars and trucks sit idling forever in front of you—you may calculate six out of ten vehicles carrying drugs will make it through, because not all can be checked. If you’re clever or experienced enough, you improve your outlook by hiding the product more surreptitiously, compressing larger quantities into fewer vehicles, or better yet, by pushing cash into the right pockets.

9/11 made this last strategy more workable. In the ensuing panic about border security, the Department of Homeland Security embarked on a hurried hiring spree to fill thousands of extra border protection positions. The people brought in to manage the front lines weren’t decorated veterans. Most of them were very young and were starting their first jobs. The rush to fill the vacant positions lowered the hiring standards that used to be routine at every border agency, and made it more difficult for the various organisations to carefully monitor their staff. Before 9/11, recruits of every stripe were routinely subjected to a battery of investigations and psychological tests to ensure their honesty and credibility. These days, only one in ten new hires are even required to take a polygraph test—of whom 60% are deemed unsuitable, as C.B.P. Assistant Commissioner James Tomsheck told a Senate homeland security subcommittee in March 2010. This lowering of standards among American officials has been a boon for the narcos.

A prime example of the cartels’ encroachment on American agents is Martha Garnica, a border guard who became known as ”La Estrella” (“the star”). Garnica was stationed at the all-important El Paso Bridge of The Americas. A 44 year-old single mother of two, struggling to pay her bills, she had worked for seven years as an El Paso police officer, before her division joined C.B.P. in 2003. While looking into the C.B.P. officers guarding the crossing, investigators for the Juarez cartel concluded that Garnica could be a ripe recruit. They were right. Offered a lavish stipend, she took the bait.

Once the cartels make contact with a corrupt border agents, the “target” is routinely required to submit to little tests—such as delivering messages or small amounts of money. These tests will steadily escalate, incriminating the target so deeply that it becomes impossible to turn back. The process can last weeks or even months; good recruiters don't jump right into the process, but chip away slowly at their prey, knowing the time and money they devote to turning an American border official will prove worthwhile in the long run.

Several years working with the Mexican drug runners allowed Martha Garnica to adopt a brand-new lifestyle involving two homes, several vehicles, some ostentatious statues and European cruises for her family. She was apprehended after a co-worker she attempted to recruit (he became know as witness "Angel”) ratted her out to C.B.P.’s Internal Affairs bureau, who had been trying to gather evidence on her for years, having been alerted by her questionable workplace injury claims, her habit of socializing in bars favored by drug dealers, and above all her suspiciously extravagant expenditures. Desperate not to blow the chance to nail their long-time suspect, Internal Affairs ordered Garnica’s co-worker to play along until a strong case could be built—Angel later reported that Garnica was in the habit of passing large stacks of cash through car windows at her post. By the time “La Estrella” was arrested, in late 2009, she was directing at least five men in drug smuggling, human trafficking and bribery operations. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Another case, currently continuing, shows another kind of corruption infiltrating the U.S. border region. In January 2010, officers from several law enfocement groups began a year-long investigation of political officials in Columbus, Texas, a town of 2000 nestled next to the Mexican border. Their digging apparently uncovered an ongoing plot by Mayor Eddie Espinoza, 51, Police Chief Angelo Vega, 40, and nine other accomplices to sell a massive cache of arms to banditos in Puerto Palomas, a border town west of Juarez. These weapons were capable of further fueling the bloody drug war, causing thousands of innocent deaths all over the Mexican state of Chihuahua and beyond. Espinoza, Vega and their alleged cronies were charged with buying firearms for illegal export in March this year.

But perhaps even more significant was the case of Richard Cramer, now 58, a high-ranking I.C.E. agent who had worked for the government for 26 years and was appointed to head up I.C.E.’s important Nogales office in 2003. He proved to be a less-than-ideal choice for the job. According to D.E.A. agents, Cramer was stationed in Mexico when he apparently offered his services to an unidentified cartel and invested $25,000 of his own money in the shipment of 300 kilograms of cocaine from Panama that was seized by agents. A trafficker convinced Cramer to retire in January 2007—and work as his full-time consultant. He was arrested and indicted for cocaine dealing and obstructing an investigation by the D.E.A. in 2009, but was convicted—after pleading guilty—merely of obstruction of justice. Cramer faced as many as 20 years in prison, but U.S. District Judge Paul Huck said, in February 2010, that the crime was mitigated by Cramer's unblemished military and law-enforcement career—and sentenced him to just two years' incarceration near Cramer's home in Sahuarita, along with three years’ probation. The case both emphasized the corruptability of U.S. officials, however senior, and called into question the seriousness with which the U.S. judiciary takes the problem.

Like the drug war itself, the battle against corruption is at its height, but the United States may finally be starting to get wise. This January, after much delay in the Senate, President Obama finally signed Senator Mark Pryor’s Anti-Border Corruption Act into law, in a bid to prevent prevent corrupt agents from being hired or retained. It makes polygraph tests mandatory for all applicants for C.B.P. law enforcement positions—the requirement has to be implemented within two years, giving the agency time to hire and train examiners. The bill also requires C.B.P. to initiate background checks on all 19,000 backlogged employees, so many resignations are expected as the cartels’ informants jump ship.

Corruption doesn’t keep the drug war going on its own—it’s also fanned by the vast sums earned by cartels and corrupt politicians, by America’s never-ending desire for drugs, and even by federal agencies’ reliance on having a war to fight in order to retain their multi-million annual budgets. But in most news articles on the drug war, border agents are portrayed as brave men and women who routinely risk their lives to protect Americans from the dregs across the border. No doubt, many of them are. A significant number of American agents have decided though, that if you can’t beat them, join them. Americans, it turns out, are just as corruptible as anyone else. It was the Mexican cartels—luckily for them—who were the first to see it.

Additional reporting by Will Godfrey

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