Drug cartels seek to exploit corrupt federal agents

Anders Kristensson/Corbis

It's not clear when Louis Enrique Ramirez took his first bribe. In the summer of 2005, the former customs inspector apparently began cutting deals with smugglers to allow undocumented immigrants as well as the occasional load of drugs across the Southwest border from Mexico into Texas. During the next three and a half years, U.S. investigators believe Ramirez pocketed $500,000 to provide safe passage for illegal immigrants and cocaine. In early 2009, Ramirez fled to Mexico after someone tipped him off that investigators had begun to unravel his scheme.

The law caught up with Ramirez late last fall when federal agents arrested him crossing the international bridge from Matamoros, Mexico, into Brownsville, Texas. A partially unsealed 13-count indictment against the 38-year-old former inspector at the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection bureau charged him with multiple counts of drug trafficking, alien smuggling, conspiracy and bribery. On March 3, just as jury selection for his trial was about to begin, he pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking and alien smuggling and admitted he belonged to a drug trafficking organization. In addition to coordinating drug shipments through the inspection lanes he handled at the U.S. border, Ramirez conspired to bring undocumented foreigners into the United States and transport them farther "for commercial advantage and private financial gain," noted a statement released by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen convicted Ramirez and ordered him to forfeit $500,000 -- the amount of money federal agents believe Ramirez made through corruption. Hanen set sentencing for early June when Ramirez faces additional fines totaling $4.7 million. He could spend the rest of his life in prison.

The Ramirez case and others illustrate a worrisome trend at CBP. As the bureau has ratcheted up efforts to cope with the tide of crime sweeping across the Southwest border, Mexican cartels have stepped up efforts to infiltrate CBP and other federal, state and local agencies responsible for policing the border. A week after Ramirez entered his guilty plea, federal agents arrested nearly a dozen members of a smuggling ring operating in the border town of Columbus, N.M. Among those netted in the raid were the mayor and police chief. According to the 84-count indictment against them, they supplied weapons to criminals in Mexico.

Thomas Frost, Homeland Security's assistant inspector general for investigations, told Senate lawmakers in 2010, "Drug trafficking organizations have purchased information to vet their members, to track investigative activity and to identify cooperative individuals" in U.S. law enforcement.

For a number of reasons, Mexican drug cartels have targeted CBP agents in traffickers' broad efforts to corrupt U.S. law enforcement personnel, says James Tomsheck, assistant commissioner for internal affairs at the bureau. "We are the largest law enforcement organization in the United States and much of that growth has occurred in the last five years. It creates vulnerabilities that are inevitable."

Tomsheck notes that the Border Patrol agents and customs inspectors on the front lines of the long-running battle against multinational drug cartels serve in the highest threat environment for corruption and integrity issues that law enforcement personnel face -- the Southwest border. "And we're doing all this at a point in time when there are clear indications there are greater efforts on the part of those who would compromise our workforce than ever before," he says.

In the April issue of Government Executive, Katherine McIntire Peters examines border protection issues against the backdrop of the drug war.

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