MCALLEN - The Border Patrol checkpoint on a remote stretch of South Texas ranchland was the ideal route for a drug trafficking ring to move tons of marijuana.
To make sure their product got through, traffickers paid $1.5 million to U.S. Border Patrol agent Juan Alfredo Alvarez, 35, to wave trucks loaded with a ton or more of marijuana through checkpoints outside Hebbronville, according to a plea bargain Alvarez agreed to earlier this month.
As Mexican drug cartels have transformed the Texas-Mexico border into one of the major transport corridors for marijuana, cocaine and heroin, traffickers have stepped up their efforts to bribe agents.
While attention has been focused on the wide-scale corruption of Mexican law enforcement officials by powerful drug organizations, recent investigations along the border have revealed corruption of several U.S. agents at key international crossings.
Alvarez, who awaits sentencing, joined nearly a half-dozen federal agents on the Texas border who have been convicted or charged in the past few months of taking bribes from drug dealers or human smugglers. Two weeks ago, members of a U.S. Justice Department sting operation arrested 17 current or former military and law enforcement officers who allegedly were paid $220,000 by undercover agents to allow counterfeit drugs to cross check-points on the Arizona border.
The most recent Texas corruption convictions include:
Gerardo Diaz, a 43-year-old U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspector who pleaded guilty in El Paso to accepting a $15,000 bribe to allow five kilos of cocaine to enter the Ysleta port of entry. He was sentenced in March to eight years in prison. In April, U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspector Fabian Solis, 41, was convicted of taking $300 for each undocumented alien he allowed to enter the country at international bridges in Roma and Rio Grande City. He is awaiting sentencing. Veteran prosecutors and federal agents say trying to bribe an official who mans a border crossing point, a highway checkpoint in the interior, or a stretch of the Rio Grande is a risky but successful tactic.
"To a drug organization, it's the logical extension of a successful business plan," explained former federal prosecutor Eric Reed, who entered private practice in Houston earlier this year. "I mean, if you have a hook in a law enforcement officer, you've got it made."
For The Love Of Money
The reasons for corruption are varied, officials say, and include the experience of living in close-knit border communities where future drug smugglers grow up and attend school alongside future police officers. Additionally, drug organizations are known to use women to induce agents to help smuggling operations, one prosecutor notes.
"It's usually the money and sex because lots of times there's a woman involved," said a prosecutor, who asked not to be identified. "Usually it's a male person taking the bribes."
And the bribe amounts can be staggering.
"It's the money and weakness," said one longtime U.S. agent stationed on the border, who would only speak if his name was not used. "It doesn't take a whole lot to approach an officer at a Port of Entry and ask, 'How would you like to make $5,000 a car?' "
Federal agents on the border earn more than local police, and a rookie Border Patrol officer is paid $35,000, while experienced customs or immigration inspectors can earn up to $70,000 with overtime, agency officials said.
In a corruption case pending in McAllen, a U.S. Customs inspector living in a $500,000 home -- complete with a basement movie theater -- is accused of accepting up to $10,000 for each drug-loaded vehicle he allegedly waved through his inspection lane on an international bridge. FBI agents testified the inspector was working for two drug organizations.
Houston-based U.S. Attorney Mike Shelby, who heads prosecutions in the sprawling South Texas judicial district, said that only terrorist attacks present a more dangerous threat to American society than corruption of public officials.
"Corruption undermines public confidence in all institutions of government, and rightly so," said Shelby, a veteran prosecutor who is stepping down June 11 to begin private practice. "If you believe public officials are using public office for personal gain, it's difficult for people to believe government is working on their behalf. So when we find it, we use every tool available to prosecute it."
Shelby, who in 2001 became chief prosecutor of a 43-county region that includes the border from Brownsville to Laredo, said he boosted the public integrity division from one to five full-time prosecutors.
Criminal cases against corrupt officials climbed from four in 2001 to nine cases in 2002, 15 cases in 2003, and 17 last year, he said. Shelby expects this year's prosecutions of corrupt officials will exceed last year's.
The public officials are a wide and varying group, including not only border law agents but county commissioners, school board administrators and trustees, city managers, zoning inspectors, state prosecutors, defense attorneys and constables.
But Shelby said the Texas border is no more corrupt than any other in the world, and it is the international exchange of commerce -- and not the people -- that engenders graft.
"The temptations are so great in the border environment -- whether it's in Texas, Arizona or Minnesota -- the border itself creates a unique opportunity and unique temptations, and it's true in the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia," he said.
The wealth offered by traffickers is tempting, the prosecutor notes, since "border officials are often not paid very well for their efforts and, by contrast, people involved in illegal activities on the border are rewarded quite handsomely."
Prosecutors are trying to prove that was the situation with longtime U.S. Customs inspector Lizandro Martinez, who earned $55,600 a year but was arrested in December at his north McAllen home worth $529,963.
The home, one of three the agent owns, featured a swimming pool cabana with five showers, a basement movie theater and expensive furniture, an FBI agent testified.
Martinez, 43, a federal inspector since 1991, has denied the charges.
Lawsuits And Benefits
In pretrial hearings, his relatives have said the inspector's income included settlements from civil lawsuits and income tax refunds, as well as government reinstatement benefits after his union successfully fought two past suspensions from the U.S. Customs Service.
During a detention hearing, an FBI agent testified that video cameras recorded Martinez on seven occasions waving marijuana-laden pickup trucks through his lane while he worked the midnight-to-dawn shift at the Progreso International Bridge.
"They were filled to the top with marijuana ... sometimes you could see it protruding" from beneath plastic tarps, FBI agent Marella Rueles testified.
The FBI agent testified that a suspected drug trafficker, who worked with Martinez when they were both young police officers in nearby Hidalgo, was seen driving up to the inspector's post and signaling how many loaded trucks were to be allowed in without inspection. The inspector would then switch off the automatic license plate reader, which records vehicles entering the United States, and allow the pickups to enter without inspection, according to testimony.
In denying bond, U.S. Magistrate Dorina Ramos expressed "great concern" about the inspector's financial status, noting Martinez had filed for bankruptcy three times but managed to acquire $217,000 in equity in his homes and a used-car dealership.
FBI agents traced an additional $400,000 in cash expenditures he made in 2003, the judges detention order reads.
Martinez and 12 co-defendants are scheduled for trial in June.
Former prosecutor Reed, who grew up in Brownsville and has handled corruption cases over the past decade, said agents frequently are corrupted by old friends.
"In so many of these cases, it seems like the law enforcement officer has a prior relationship with the trafficker," Reed said. "Or a relationship with someone who introduces them, or they have a girlfriend who introduces them."
"And then, it's just the easy money.
The rash of arrests and predictions that more will occur as trafficking increases on the Texas border have angered and embarrassed the ranks of federal officers on the border.
They say the majority are honest, but they know it is a tough job to stamp out graft entirely.
"'How do you stop corruption? You don't, as long as there is money and weakness in the system," said the longtime U.S. border agent. "You have to keep monitoring."
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