Weak Link

Drug cartels are working hard to corrupt federal agents and drive a hole through border security.

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.

Rooting Out Corruption

Few problems have been as vexing to Washington politicians as border security along the 1,900-mile stretch of territory that separates the United States from Mexico. In a quest to stanch the flow of drugs and illegal immigrants coming into the states from the south, recent Republican and Democratic administrations have at least one approach in common-policies that have created unprecedented growth at Customs and Border Protection. In the last five years alone, from 2005 through 2010, CBP grew by 16,315 employees, from 42,409 to 58,724.

As CBP has been ramping up efforts along the border, Mexican cartels have been mounting their own offensive-to infiltrate the bureau, Tomsheck says. Since Oct. 1, 2004, 121 current or former CBP employees have been arrested, indicted or prosecuted for corruption, including cases in which employee actions were serious enough to compromise the bureau's mission. The number dipped in 2006 and 2007, but rose again sharply in 2008 and 2009.

"We take great pride in the fact that despite that scenario, we maintain a very high integrity workforce where all but a fraction of 1 percent of [employees] continue to engage in the most honest behavior you can expect of a law en- forcement organization," Tomsheck says. Nonetheless, the number of corruption cases has outpaced the rate at which CBP has grown, he adds, prompting senior leaders to reorganize and boost its internal affairs staff and activities.

"The number of arrests trended upward pretty significantly," Tomsheck says. The dip in the number of employees arrested for corruption between 2009 (when 29 were taken into custody) and 2010 (when the number dropped to 18) is encouraging, but he isn't declaring victory. "I hope it's a legitimate downward trend, but it's really too early to tell. We'd like to think that some of the measures we've put into place with some of our partners have had an impact," he says.

Among the steps CBP began taking in 2008, as corruption arrests were starting to peak, was a program to polygraph applicants who were considered a high risk for law enforcement positions-especially those who had lived outside the United States for periods of time, making it difficult to assess their suitability through standard background investigations. "From that program there were strong indicators that there were infiltrators in our applicant pool, and polygraph was successful in identifying them. The numbers wouldn't be appropriate for me to discuss, but an alarming number were identified," Tomsheck says.

Expanding Polygraphs

A September 2010 investigative report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee staff found that drug cartels "have been attempting to infiltrate the agency by sending drug traffickers to take the entrance examination."

Among CBP applicants who take polygraph tests, 60 percent are found to be ineligible for employment, primarily because they have a history of drug abuse or criminal activity that they failed to disclose during the application process. Among applicants who take and pass the polygraph, fewer than 1 percent later fail the mandatory background investigation. But among those who don't receive a polygraph, the failure rate of the background investigation is roughly 22 percent, the Senate report found.

Despite the value of the polygraph test in screening out ineligible law enforcement applicants, the test is administered to only about 15 percent of applicants. The fact that such a valuable tool goes unused 85 percent of the time is a matter of resources, Tomsheck says. CBP does not have enough trained polygraph examiners to increase the rate of testing, a problem that has been compounded by significant growth in personnel. Between 2002 and 2009, the workforce doubled from 10,045 to 20,119. As pressure on internal affairs to screen more applicants has grown, the office is handling more investigations into employee misconduct. There were 576 allegations of corruption among Border Patrol agents in 2009 alone, the Senate report found.

In December, Congress passed the 2010 Anti-Border Corruption Act, which required CBP within two years to submit all applicants to a polygraph examination prior to hiring them. The law, which President Obama signed in January, also requires CBP to clear its backlog of periodic reinvestigations of current employees-a backlog that has grown to 19,000, or 45 percent of its law enforcement positions, according to the Senate investigation.

Law enforcement personnel undergo mandatory background reinvestigations every five years. So, each year the investigations are scheduled for the cohort of officers hired five years earlier. CBP has been unable to keep up with the schedule, however. Under the new law, the bureau must initiate (not necessarily complete) all scheduled reinvestigations within 180 days. Employees undergoing re-examinations will not be subject to mandatory polygraphs, something employee unions have protested, but investigators can request a polygraph if they have reason to believe such an exam would be useful in a particular case and the employee consents to one, he says.

The polygraph mandate, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost $19 million to implement during the 2011-2015 period, creates new challenges for internal affairs. Tomsheck in January met with officials at the National Center for Credibility Assessment, based at Fort Jackson, S.C., to discuss how the polygraph training center can help CBP expand the number of certified examiners to meet the law's requirements. The military school, which has operated under various names in the past, offers the only federally certified polygraph instruction in the nation. All law enforcement examiners must complete the 14-week course to become certified under federal law.

"A polygraph exam is a psychological test. It's a fragile one. It needs to be properly administered by highly trained professionals, and there needs to be a very standardized approach to get a valid result," Tomsheck says. While polygraph exams can be flawed, as the tool's critics are quick to point out, "the overwhelming body of research strongly supports the use of polygraph both in applicant screening and in criminal testing," he adds.

Additional Steps Tomsheck arrived at CBP in 2006 from the Secret Service, where he oversaw 22 field offices as a senior executive in the office of investigations. With the support of CBP leadership, he set out to restructure and bolster the bureau's anti-corruption program. When he started, the internal affairs staff numbered around 160 employees; today he has more than 620 and he expects to hire more personnel in the future beyond those needed to expand the polygraph program.

Eventually, he says he'd like to see periodic reinvestigations evolve into a continuous monitoring program. Among the anti-corruption efforts he has expanded at CBP is a program to better analyze corruption patterns to detect potential problems earlier and prevent criminal activity.

Janene Corrado, director of internal affairs' integrity programs division, says CBP analysts continually examine vast quantities of public data to search for anomalies that could indicate corruption. Among the most ambitious projects the division has undertaken is one to build a case study of the insider threat at CBP. Analysts are methodically examining every corruption case to detect patterns or other indicators that will further develop their understanding of the threat. In each case, they're attempting to interview former co-workers and associates to build a comprehensive picture of corrupt behavior. The information they develop will inform training programs and operations to root out corruption.

Another increasingly ripe source of data for analysts are social networking websites, Corrado says. Employees often reveal compromising information, assuming wrongly their revelations are private, or shared only among confidants. "Sites like Facebook and MySpace are a gold mine," she says.

Another red flag is a sudden change in an employee's financial behavior.

Conspicuous consumption should trigger a closer look by managers, Corrado says, noting that for federal employees, earnings are a matter of public record.

"If one of your employees pulls into the parking lot with a new Hummer, maybe you want to engage them and find out [what prompted the expensive purchase]," she says. "It may be completely explainable-maybe grandma left someone $100,000, or someone won the lottery. The dollar always gives us a lot of information."

Consider the case of former customs inspector Margarita Crispin. While Crispin lived modestly in El Paso, Texas, not long after she was hired by CBP she bought two expensive homes in Mexico, along with several luxury vehicles. Tipped off by an informant that Crispin was allowing drug shipments through the lanes she worked at the El Paso port of entry, FBI and Homeland Security agents were tracking her movements when they discovered the purchases, made through straw buyers, as well as her social connections to known drug traffickers. In July 2007, after nearly three years of investigation, federal agents arrested Crispin when she showed up for work. In April 2008, she pleaded guilty to various charges and was sentenced to 22 years in prison. FBI investigators estimate she received more than $5 million in bribes during her employment with CBP.

Tomsheck and other bureau officials hope CBP has turned the tide on rising corruption cases. "We are looking very carefully and very hopefully at the downward trend. We hope it's an indicator we have rounded the corner," he says.

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