Homeland Security Report Documents Corruption in US Border Officials

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A recent Department of Homeland Security report on internal discipline provides an important reminder that authorities in the United States are not immune from corruption, with a number found to be complicit in drugs and arms trafficking networks.

On August 1, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) quietly released the latest “Summary of Significant Investigations,” (.pdf), a special report on personnel misconduct that the DHS’ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has released annually since 2009. During the reporting period of January 1 to December 31, 2011, OIG officials investigated 1,389 allegations of misconduct, which resulted in 318 arrests and 260 convictions of department employees.

Fortunately for United States border security, the vast majority of cases involve fraud committed by Federal Emergency Management Agency contractors. Nonetheless, the report offers a less than flattering profile of those charged with monitoring border security as well.

The report documents several alarming incidents of border security and immigration officers accepting bribes and either aiding or directly participating in drug and gun smuggling schemes. One junior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent mentioned in the report, Valentino Johnson, was even convicted of protecting a cocaine distribution ring by robbing rival drug traffickers.

US officials have chalked much of these incidents up to the massive expansion of the DHS since 2004, and of insufficient vetting of potential employees. As a way of combating this, in 2010 the DHS announced a plan to submit every potential employee to a polygraph exam by 2013.

InSight Crime Analysis

While many of the border security officials investigated last year were rookie employees, seniority does not guarantee reliability. Several of the most serious compromises of US national security in 2011 were committed by long-time officers. An 8-year Customs and Border Protection (CBP) veteran in Texas, for instance, was convicted of routinely allowing drug traffickers to smuggle large quantities of cocaine into the country under his watch. Another 8-year CBP employee in Atlanta, Georgia was arrested for using his position to benefit a marijuana distribution network based in at least three other states.

These cases raise questions about the United States’ “front line” of defense and point to a major impediment to cracking down on drug smuggling into the country: namely, the fact that corruption does not end at the border. Although there have been a number of incidents of drug trafficking organizations exerting influence over American officials recently, the scope of the problem is hard to gauge. On one hand (as the Center for Public Integrity points out), the DHS is a massive government agency with more than 225,000 employees, and can be expected to have a few bad apples. On the other, the number of complaints against border security officers appears to be on the rise, with a 38 percent increase from 2004 to 2011.

Criminal penetration into the US is also not limited to border authorities. Local elected officials, like their Mexican counterparts, are susceptible to corruption as well. In February, law enforcement agents arrested El Paso County Commissioner Guillermo “Willie” Gandara Jr. on drug trafficking charges. Gandara was a member of an influential political family in the county, and had been running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives.

While evidence suggests that the influence of drug trafficking organizations in the US southwest pales in comparison to the level of criminal control in the north of Mexico, incidents like these illustrate the real threat of drug traffickers’ expansion across the border. Instead of focusing on largely over-hyped “spillover violence,” it may be more worthwhile to emphasize the potential threat to institutions of government.

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