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Temptation Along the Border

June 08, 2005

Just as surely as the sky is blue, law enforcement in Mexico is corrupt. That assumption may too often be true, but it is incomplete. A federal sting that exposed surprising openness to bribery among U.S. soldiers and law enforcement officers on the U.S.-Mexico border ought to turn on a light bulb.

Recent stories by The Times' Ralph Vartabedian showed that Army National Guard Humvees were used to deliver hundreds of pounds of cocaine to an Arizona hotel. A federal inspector waved trucks he believed to be carrying drugs safely across the border. Uniformed national guardsmen lugged kilos of coke into the U.S. in their official vehicles. Even the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration organizers of the sting, which was conducted in stages from 2002 through 2004, were taken aback by the numbers and eagerness of the bribe-seekers.

The 22 guardsmen, prison guards, immigration agents and Air Force personnel who have been charged or pleaded guilty so far are not the end of it. A defense lawyer described those in custody as only "the bottom tier."

The Justice Department sting is intended to send a message both to the Mexican government ("See, we're cracking down on our side") and to other would-be bribe-takers ("You should wonder who's handing you the money"). But as border enforcement tightens, there's ever more money in the smuggling of drugs and people. That makes cheating increasingly tempting even for U.S. agents who make 10 or 20 times the salary of a Mexican police officer.

Higher-level officials are apparently not immune. A federal grand jury Tuesday indicted a former immigration service intelligence chief in San Diego on charges of covering up a drug and immigrant smuggling ring. Even Forest Service rangers have been caught smuggling marijuana in Arizona.

The usual disclaimer goes here: The vast majority of border enforcement agents are no doubt upright and unbribed. Those caught in the sting, though far too many, are not the norm.

The drug war and the clampdown on immigration from Mexico are a volatile combination. Would-be immigrants might pay thousands of dollars to smugglers who promise, often falsely, to see them safely across Arizona deserts. The smugglers increase their take by muling drugs as well, putting migrants in greater physical and legal danger.

On the U.S. side, the military, the Department of Homeland Security and the DEA all take a piece of the enforcement job, sometimes with poor coordination. New and temporary personnel are thrown into difficult, uncomfortable and dangerous work.

The Arizona bribery sting is commendable, even if it shatters a few U.S. illusions. It also ought to raise some radical questions about the enforcement and results of our border policies.

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