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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

"It diminished our ability to be as vigilant and on top of the corruption issue as we were in the past," said Bonner, who fought to keep internal investigators in the new agency. "The whole thing became more fragmented."

The FBI is rushing more agents to the border to address the problem, said Burrus, the assistant director. In most of its field offices, the FBI allocates 20% of its agents to public corruption cases. Along the border, it is 40% to 60%. In recent years, it has boosted public-corruption staffing by a third.

"We are doing the best we can with the resources we have," Burrus said. "There will never be enough resources."

Even the most ambitious review of job applicants won't necessarily ferret out all of the problems. Many convicted agents have said financial pressures and other personal dilemmas drove them to cross the line. Smugglers often know how to push the right button.

A Border Patrol agent, part of a narcotics and immigrant network in El Paso, explained to a judge last year how smugglers sought to recruit him.

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.

Agent Aldo Erives said the drug dealers knew that he hitchhiked to his classes at a local college.

"Come on," he said they told him, "you can buy a car if you pass a load through the checkpoint."

In the dryer

Sometimes, federal agents initiate the corruption.

In El Paso, Santiago Efrain, an ICE agent assigned to help guard a detention center, allegedly told the lawyer for a jailed Mexican smuggling suspect that for $20,000 he could get the charges dropped and the suspect safely back to Mexico. Efrain allegedly said he normally charged $30,000 for this kind of favor but was willing to cut a deal.

The Mexican lawyer alerted U.S. authorities, who sent an undercover agent to meet with Efrain at the local Starbucks. Efrain, wearing his duty uniform, allegedly accepted the $20,000 and was promptly arrested. He is awaiting trial.

Also yet to go to trial is David Duque Jr., a Border Patrol agent in Falfurrias, Texas, north of McAllen. He is charged with bribery for allegedly advising a government informant how to package cocaine in order to get it past the police dogs at the border checkpoints. He asked for $2,500 for every kilogram of cocaine that got through, authorities say.

According to the indictment, Duque instructed that payment should be left in his clothes dryer.

"Law enforcement officials have confirmed that Duque has a dryer located outside his residence on the porch," the indictment duly noted.

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ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

richard.serrano@latimes.com

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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In his own words

Julio Alfonso Lopez, 45, former deputy commander of the Laredo Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, described to FBI agents in an April 18 affidavit how he was paid off.

"The first time Kiko asked me to tell him where the task force guys were located was in July 2005. I was paid more than $1,000 for not trying to arrest the traffickers."

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"The second time ... I told Kiko that the area was clear of any task force officers. I was paid more than $1,000 for not trying to arrest or investigate ... or seize the cocaine. Cocaine was coming through Zapata."

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"The third time Kiko asked for information, I told him that all task force officers were clear of the area. I knew there was at least 20 kilograms of cocaine coming through Zapata. ... I met Kiko at the Red Lobster and he gave me at least $3,000."

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"The fourth time Kiko said that he had a storage unit that he was going to use to store the cocaine. I did not look for the cocaine, investigate the traffickers or try to arrest them.... I met Kiko at the Pep Boys and he gave me at least $3,000."

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"In December 2005 I met the traffickers at the Red Lobster in an attempt to gain their confidence after Kiko told me they wanted to move 200 kilograms of cocaine. ... I wanted the traffickers to keep working with me and Kiko. I knew that I could make a lot of money. I have been using cocaine for approximately one year and Kiko supplies me the cocaine."

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