Reporting from Nogales, Ariz. — Around here, the grim joke goes, most people work for the government or the mafias.
Richard Padilla Cramer apparently had bested the temptations that come with the territory. During three decades in border law enforcement, he made the most of his pitch-perfect Spanish and talent for undercover work. He locked up corrupt officials, racked up drug busts and rose through the ranks. He retired after a coveted stint as a U.S. attache for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Mexico, the land he had left as a child.
At 56, the former anti-drug chief was an immigrant success story: a decorated Vietnam veteran; a youthful, solidly built grandfather whose three children served in the military and law enforcement.
So his arrest in September resounded in the close-knit law enforcement community like a bomb blast in the desert. The alleged corruption goes beyond the typical case of an inspector waving drug loads north.
In a trial set to begin Monday in Miami, authorities will charge that Cramer sold his talents to drug lords while in Mexico, acting in effect as a counter-espionage consultant helping to unmask informants and set up smuggling deals. Raising fears of gangsters buying the expertise of U.S. law enforcement, investigators predict that the case will widen to bring down more agents.
But several former officials defend Cramer. Friends and family call it an overzealous prosecution based mainly on traffickers-turned-informants.
"Of the people I worked with in my career, he's one of a group of four or five who I would trust with my life," said Terry Kirkpatrick, a retired ICE supervisor. "Unless somebody says, 'Here's a videotape,' I am not going to believe it."
The history of drug wars in Mexico is full of fallen crime-fighters who battled one cartel while on the payroll of another. But that kind of treachery is less frequent among those north of the line. Cramer's case is clouded by the ambiguities and mysteries of the border.
"This is impossible to grasp," said Rene Andreu, a former assistant ICE chief in Tucson. "Richard is old-fashioned in his integrity, his honor, the perceptions people have of him. I can't imagine him taking the risk of having his family look at him differently."
Cramer's daughter Michelle, 33, said that the reality she knows clashes with the image of a high-rolling outlaw. About four months before the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested him in Tucson, Cramer began a $30,000-a-year job as a jailer with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department, the border-area agency in Arizona he had first worked for in the 1970s. He lost about 30 pounds training with cadets half his age, she said. He told friends and family he did it for the challenge and to keep busy.
"He would come home and brag about the push-ups he did, more than the 20-something-year-olds," Michelle Cramer said. "He got sprayed with mace at the academy. . . . He was all red, excited, telling us about it."
Was the return to his roots part of an elaborate cover story or a sign of his gung-ho taste for life in uniform? If he crossed the line into corruption, when did it happen and how?
The investigation started two years ago as an outgrowth of a DEA inquiry on a Mexican drug ring active in Florida. Traffickers boasted that a U.S. official was selling them files that they used to identify traitors. The probe expanded and has targeted other U.S. officials, although it remains to be seen whether they will be charged as accomplices or accused of lesser offenses, such as leaking documents.
A high-ranking federal official, who requested anonymity when discussing the ongoing case, said that Cramer is believed to have been involved in corruption since his years as a chief agent in Nogales. But prosecutors have made no such allegations.
Cramer's story begins in this border town of about 20,000, where his family moved soon after his birth in Guaymas, Mexico. His Irish-born stepfather, a Spanish-American War veteran, died when Cramer was a teenager. His childhood was bilingual and bicultural, according to longtime friend Jaime Huerta, who became a banker and is now a community organizer in Los Angeles.
"We had the benefit of both cultures," Huerta said. "In high school we were the clean-cut guys. We weren't doing drugs. We drank beer, but we were not boozers."
Cramer dropped out to fight in Vietnam because he revered the military and needed to support his mother, Huerta said. Cramer was awarded a Bronze Star. Back home, he married his wife, Carmen, who is from Nogales, and started working at the U.S. Customs Service in 1980.
Graft was a workplace hazard. Cramer soon learned that smugglers prey on rookie Mexican American border inspectors with local ties. A childhood friend was enlisted to offer a bribe, but Cramer alerted his bosses and they set a trap.