SAN DIEGO — The arrests of two well-placed U.S. officials for allegedly selling immigration documents suggest that smugglers are using an organized network of corruption to breach the defenses at the Mexican border, authorities said Monday.
Federal prosecutors have filed bribery charges against a supervisory inspector at the Calexico port of entry, the highest-ranking employee of the Immigration and Naturalization Service charged with corruption here in recent memory. Delia De Lira allegedly provided border-crossing documents to a smuggling ring in exchange for gifts, including hot meals delivered to her office, authorities said.
A State Department visa examiner at the U.S. consulate in Tijuana also faces bribery charges in a separate case. Lourdes Fernandez allegedly received between $500 and $1,000 for each visa she issued, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Wheat.
Federal agents arrested and charged De Lira and Fernandez last week and both pleaded not guilty. At least four border inspectors had already been charged with taking payoffs from smugglers this year in a series of ongoing investigations. Investigators suspect documents in both cases went to illegal immigrants and drug runners as well.
For all the talk of official corruption in Mexico, the cases are the latest indications that such misconduct happens on both sides of the border. A federal task force--teaming the FBI, the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General and the Customs Service--has stepped up scrutiny of rackets that recruit U.S. officials, exploiting a climate of impunity, fast cash and cross-border kinship ties.
"We have refocused our efforts," Wheat said. "It's a higher priority."
The case against supervisory inspector De Lira, 55, grows out of arrests this year of three inspectors in Calexico, one of the nation's most active cocaine smuggling corridors. The port is considered vulnerable to corruption because of its remoteness and because many INS and Customs inspectors from the heavily Latino Imperial Valley have friends and family south of the border.
De Lira is related to an inspector who was charged in January with letting smugglers drive tons of cocaine through passenger lanes at the port, Wheat said. Authorities say she was also a friend of Sandra Fort, an INS inspector arrested in May, and Guadalupe Arroyo Gonzalez, an alleged go-between for a Mexicali smuggling ring who pleaded guilty to obtaining documents from Fort in exchange for jewelry and other gifts.
Arroyo confessed that De Lira was involved in the conspiracy, according to court documents. In an unusual twist on the typical corruption cases involving suitcases full of cash, the bribery allegedly consisted mainly of gifts. Arroyo's family owns a tortilla shop, Wheat said, and she allegedly showered the INS supervisor with clothing, medicine, boxes of meat and other Mexican groceries and hot meals delivered to the port on a sometimes daily basis.
In return, De Lira allegedly approved border-crossing cards regardless of whether the applicants met requirements. She is charged in five cases and suspected in up to 50 cases, authorities said. At least one of the documents turned up in the hands of a drug runner caught at the port with a load of marijuana, authorities said.
The case at the Tijuana consulate is also unusual. Fernandez, a 44-year-old San Diego resident who commuted to her job, was one of seven civil service examiners hired by the State Department to process documents at a consulate that issues 90,000 visas a year, spokeswoman Nancy LeRoy said. Fernandez is the first employee at a consulate to be charged with such a crime that the spokeswoman and prosecutors could recall.
The four-year employee allegedly sold "thousands" of border-crossing visas, Wheat said. And investigators suspect that Fernandez sold some of the documents to officials in the Mexican foreign affairs secretariat and immigration service who were acting as representatives of drug traffickers, according to sources.
The case was investigated by the State Department's internal affairs arm, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.