A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent checks identification from motorists crossing into the United States from Mexico at the San Ysidro, Calif., Port of Entry in June 2009. As Mexican drug cartels are squeezed by tighter security at the Southwestern border, they are intensifying efforts to evade capture by seeking to bribe U.S. border patrol agents, federal officials told a Senate panel March 11. (Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images)
As Mexican drug cartels are squeezed by tighter security at the Southwestern border, they are intensifying efforts to evade capture by seeking to bribe U.S. border patrol agents, federal officials told a Senate panel Thursday.
Since the fall of 2004, 103 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have been arrested or indicted on corruption charges, including drug smuggling, alien smuggling, money laundering and conspiracy, said James Tomsheck, assistant commissioner in the office of internal affairs for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"There is a concerted effort on the part of transnational criminal organizations to infiltrate CBP through hiring initiatives and compromise our existing agents and officers," Tomsheck told a homeland security subcommittee.
A big part of the problem is that the agency has added 20,000 employees in the past five years as Congress has moved to beef up border security. There are not enough people to properly screen job applicants and ensure that they take polygraph tests before they are hired, Tomsheck said.
Of the 10 to 15 percent who do undergo the tests, an overwhelming 60 percent are rejected for employment, he said.
Experienced border patrol officers are also supposed to be reinvestigated every five years to prevent corruption, but there is a backlog — and more than 10,000 employees are overdue for those reviews, Tomsheck said.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who chairs the subcommittee, said he is troubled by the lack of adequate screening and investigation, and wants Congress to give the agency the resources it needs to do the job right.
"This is something critically important that we need to address quickly," Pryor said. "We're on very dangerous ground here."
Corrupt border officers — in addition to allowing drug cartels and human traffickers to flout the law — could help terrorists enter the U.S., said Kevin Perkins, assistant director of the criminal investigative division of the FBI.
"If they're willing to waive through a carload of drug traffickers or illegal aliens, why wouldn't they be willing to waive through a carload of terrorists or a vehicle equipped with an explosive device?" Perkins asked.
In some cases, federal investigators have found that people are applying to become border patrol officers with the intent of engaging in criminal activity, said Thomas Frost, assistant inspector general for investigations in the Homeland Security Department.
That was the case for Margarita Crispen, a former customs officer in El Paso, Texas, who was arrested in July 2007 after allowing drug cartels to bring an estimated 2,200 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. in exchange for $5 million in bribes. She pleaded guilty to corruption charges and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
But federal officials also emphasized that the vast majority of border and customs agents are honest.
Frost pointed to a case in which the police chief of a small Mexican town offered a U.S. border patrol agent in Arizona a $25,000 bribe for every load of marijuana he would allow to be smuggled over the border. Instead, the agent helped U.S. homeland security officials conduct an undercover investigation of the Mexican police chief, resulting in the chief's arrest and imprisonment for 7½ years.
While border security is an important issue for California, Arizona and Texas, federal officials said corruption is not limited to the Southwest.
In fiscal year 2009, FBI field offices along the U.S.-Canada border conducted nearly 300 investigations of public corruption by border officers, Perkins said.
Erin Kelly writes for Gannett News Service.