Corruption cases in recent years have raised concerns about the adequacy… (David Maung / Bloomberg )
When Luis Alarid was a child, his mother would seat him in the car while she smuggled people and drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. She was the sweet-talking commuter, he was her cute boy, and the mother-son ploy regularly kept customs inspectors from peeking inside the trunk.
FOR THE RECORD: Corruption case:
An earlier version of this online article showed a photo of the San Ysidro border crossing and included a caption that stated that a Border Patrol agent who was hired there was engaged in illegal activity. Although the caption did not name the person, it referred to Luis Alarid, who is now serving a seven-year sentence for corruption. Alarid, however, was a customs inspector, not a Border Patrol agent, and he was hired at the Otay Mesa crossing, not San Ysidro.
Twenty-five years later, Alarid was back at the border in San Diego, seeking a job as a customs inspector. To get hired by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, he first needed to clear screening that examined his personal, financial and work histories.
Alarid had served in the Marines and Army, which was a factor in his favor. But there was cause for concern: His finances were in shambles, including $30,000 in credit card debt. His mother, father and other relatives had been convicted of or indicted on charges of smuggling.
After the background check and an interview, Alarid was cleared for a border posting.
Within months, he turned his government job into a lucrative criminal enterprise. In cahoots with a gang that included his uncle and, allegedly, his mother, Alarid let cars into California filled with drugs and illegal immigrants.
"I was inside now, going around understanding how things work," Alarid said in a telephone interview from federal prison in Kentucky, where he is serving a seven-year sentence for corruption.
Alarid's is one of several corruption cases in recent years that have raised concerns about the adequacy of the customs agency's screening, a joint examination by The Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
As the agency rapidly increased staffing, the system designed to identify shady job applicants struggled to keep pace, resulting in hurried background checks and loosened hiring standards, said former and current Customs officials, background investigators and Border Patrol union officials.
At a congressional hearing in June, Customs Commissioner Alan Bersin acknowledged screening problems, and other officials have said that insufficient funding created a backlog of background investigations. "The accelerated hiring pace under which we operated between 2006 and 2008 … exposed critical organizational and individual vulnerabilities within," Bersin said.
Alarid's case and others also highlight the difficulty of assessing job candidates: Should prospective agents, for instance, be rejected because of the crimes of relatives? Should a background in Mexican law enforcement be enough to disqualify a candidate because of that country's rampant police corruption? Are high debt levels a sign of recklessness or the consequence of a weak economy?
Border agents and Customs inspectors are exposed to endless illegal moneymaking opportunities. Dozens of officers in recent years have turned their government jobs into illicit riches, funding desert estates and Las Vegas gambling binges, luxury cars and buying sprees at Tiffany's.
"It's such a perfect storm, if you will, down there along the southwest border, with the vast supply of money and the aggressive tactics of the cartels," said Terry Reed, an FBI supervisory agent.
Since October 2004, 132 Customs employees have been indicted or convicted on corruption-related charges, the majority from the Southwest border. Since 2006, the number of investigations has more than tripled, from 244 to about 870 last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General.
Of the 24,000 Customs agents along the southwest border, about half were hired in the last five years. The agency is on track to hire 2,500 additional agents in the next year.
Job requirements at Customs, for which agents don't need a high school diploma, have always been more lenient than at other federal agencies. The FBI, for example, requires a college degree and relevant work experience. Critics contend that the Border Patrol traditionally hired candidates with some military or college experience but that that changed in recent years, when the ranks were filled with younger and less-experienced applicants, some still in their teens.
W. Ralph Basham, Customs commissioner from 2006 until 2009, said he told high-ranking officials at the Department of Homeland Security that he was not comfortable with the agency's rapid expansion. Those concerns were dismissed.
"We cautioned against this strategy, but we were under tremendous pressure along the Southwest border to do something," Basham said.