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THE LONG, CROOKED LINE

Rise In Bribery Tests Integrity Of U.s. Border

From California to Texas, 200 officials indicted since 2004.

Targeted By Smugglers

Some fear the corruption is `the tip of the iceberg.'

October 23, 2006|Ralph Vartabedian, Richard A. Serrano and Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writers

EL PASO — Bribery of federal and local officials by Mexican smugglers is rising sharply, and with it the fear that a culture of corruption is taking hold along the 2,000-mile border from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego.

At least 200 public employees have been charged with helping to move narcotics or illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican border since 2004, at least double the illicit activity documented in prior years, a Times examination of public records has found. Thousands more are under investigation.

Criminal charges have been brought against Border Patrol agents, local police, a county sheriff, motor vehicle clerks, an FBI supervisor, immigration examiners, prison guards, school district officials and uniformed personnel of every branch of the U.S. military, among others. The vast majority have pleaded guilty or been convicted.

Officials in Washington and along the border worry about what lies below the surface. "It is the tip of the iceberg," said James "Chip" Burrus, assistant director of the criminal investigation division of the FBI. "There is a lot more down there. The problem is, you don't know what you don't know."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Border corruption: An article Monday in Section A about corruption on the Southwest border said that Ramon Robles-Cota -- the police chief of Sonoyta, Mexico, who was charged with attempting to bribe U.S. officials -- was free in Mexico. He is in federal custody in Arizona, awaiting trial.

What is known -- from court cases, other public records and dozens of interviews -- is alarming enough. Some schemes have displayed considerable sophistication among Mexican drug lords, and their success shows a discouraging willingness by public employees to take tainted money.

Though America's southern border may evoke images of a poor backwater, it is alive with vast amounts of ill-gotten wealth, shadowy organizations that ply the waters of the Rio Grande, and brazen schemes that seem borrowed out of Cold War espionage.

Perhaps the most revealing example of smugglers' savvy was their cultivation of the highest-ranking FBI official in El Paso, Special Agent in Charge Hardrick Crawford.

FBI agents thought they had turned alleged drug kingpin Jose Maria Guardia into an informant, but Guardia was working as a double agent for the Mexican drug lords. He drew Crawford into a personal friendship, and provided a job for Crawford's wife, a country club membership for the couple and family trips to Las Vegas.

In August, after the chummy relationship became public, Crawford was convicted on federal charges of trying to conceal his friendship with Guardia. He could be sentenced to up to five years in prison and fined half a million dollars.

Drug rings once planted a mole in a federal agency, and officials worry others are lurking. The rings have entangled U.S. agents in sexual relationships. And they have amassed files on individual U.S. agents, with details about their finances, families and habits -- even the kind of bicycles their kids ride.

"They hire guys to watch the narcotics agents," says Lee Morgan II, who retired as the head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Douglas, Ariz., this year. "They know what time we get up in the morning. When we go to work. What kind of car your wife drives.

"We had an informant tell us he saw a film of us as we exited our office that was being shown in Mexico. They had our license plate numbers."

The Mexican criminal networks can afford lavish payoffs. Bribery payments have topped $1 million.

Paul K. Charlton, U.S. attorney for Arizona since 2001, is convinced border corruption is worsening -- and jeopardizing the trust that U.S. communities place in their government.

"The concern for me is that we can very quickly develop a culture that would be more accepting of that kind of misconduct," Charlton said. "You only have to look south of the border to see what happens when a certain level of corruption is accepted."

Officials warn that the risk of public corruption will grow as Congress and the Bush administration respond to public demands to improve border security. Customs and Border Protection, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, wants to add 10,000 employees to its workforce of 42,000, most of whom are already stationed along the Mexican border.

"If you increase the number of people on the border, you are going to get more corruption," said the FBI's Burrus.

More security, more corruption

Stepped-up border security also makes corruption all the more necessary to smugglers.

"As we tighten up on the border, it will make it harder for the traffickers to get across," said Johnny Sutton, U.S. attorney for Texas' Western District. "You have to be creative about getting your poison into the U.S. Obviously, corrupting the officials is a part of it."

Critics blame sloppy hiring practices, inadequate training and weak internal controls. Agents are vulnerable because morale in the agency is "pathetic," stemming in part from illegal immigrants' phony allegations against agents that have unfairly ruined careers, said T.J. Bonner, head of the union for Border Patrol agents.

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