Since the hiring surge of the 2000s, the largest law enforcement agency in the country has been battling corruption among the employees in charge of protecting the nation's borders.
Last week, a former Customs and Border Protection officer was convicted of unlawful importation and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona reported in a news release. Luis Vasquez let pickup trucks loaded with more than 1,200 pounds of marijuana cross the Douglas Port of Entry without inspecting them, prosecutors say. He was arrested in 2011 and was found guilty Thursday. Vasquez will be sentenced April 29 and faces a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison and a fine up to $5 million.
While misconduct and corruption cases involve a small percentage of the total workforce, Customs and Border Protection needs to do more to prevent it, recent reports say.
The Government Accountability Office recommends, among other things, that the agency complete post-corruption analysis of every employee convicted and assess the viability of expanding lie-detector tests to current employees.
The Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute, a federally funded research center that analyzes homeland security issues, found the agency "has struggled to streamline its own disciplinary system, to stamp out an internal 'code of silence' that protects corrupt co-workers from exposure or even to fully understand how bad the corruption problem is," says an article from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The center reviewed and wrote about an 80-page report from the institute that has been kept secret for more than a year.
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
"While the vast majority of Border Patrol agents are doing the best they can given the limited resources they have, Congress has an obligation to conduct thorough oversight to root out corruption and misconduct," Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, wrote in a statement.
Flake and Sen. John McCain, both Republicans, are among the group of eight senators working on immigration reform, a goal that encompasses the topic of securing the border.
144 arrested in 7 years
In the past seven years - from fiscal years 2005 to 2012 - 144 Custom and Border Protection employees have been arrested or indicted on corruption charges, including for smuggling people and drugs, the GAO reported.
About 65 percent of those arrested or indicted were stationed along the Southwest border.
Although they account for less than 1 percent of the agency's entire workforce, Customs and Border Protection officials have said they are concerned about the negative impact it has on agencywide integrity.
"No act of corruption or misconduct within our agency can or will be tolerated," David Aguilar, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said during a congressional committee hearing in August. "CBP's leaders, including myself, are committed to creating and maintaining an organization in which all employees have the strength of character and support to reject all opportunities for corruption and to reveal them when discovered."
That's particularly important to an agency patrolling our nation's borders, said Arizona Rep. Ron Barber, who recently held community meetings in Douglas and Tucson to discuss border security.
"Virtually all of Border Patrol agents are honest and good people who really have come into uniform to do the job, but there is an element that is corrupt and they are corrupt because the cartels put a lot of money on the table," Barber, a Democrat, said. "They are corrupt because they may have actually been recruited by the cartels to join the Border Patrol in order to be able to help them get their drugs across."
Big workforce increase
Criminal organizations have always looked for creative ways to smuggle drugs and people across the border - and a mid-2000s hiring surge of Customs and Border Protection employees might have opened a new door.
The agency's workforce jumped nearly 40 percent in about six years to 60,591 as of August 2012. Most of the new Customs and Border Protection officers and Border Patrol agents were assigned to the Southwest - the number jumped more than 50 percent during the same period of time to 24,057 employees.
The Southwest border region has seen more allegations of employee corruption and misconduct than any other, which may be partly because many of those assigned were new and less experienced, agency officials said in the report by the GAO.
"We grew the Border Patrol very quickly over the last five years," said Barber. "When you bring it up that quickly, you bring people in who may not have been the right people. The bigger the numbers, the more likely you are going to have an element who is corrupt."
Officials interviewed for the GAO report said they had concerns about the suitability of officers and agents hired during the surges because most of them didn't take a polygraph test.
The agency's polygraph program was implemented in 2008 but not every prospective new employee was required to take it. In 2009, less than 15 percent of applicants took polygraph tests, the Anti-Corruption Act of 2010 said. The act made lie-detector tests mandatory for all applicants for enforcement jobs starting last month. Customs and Border Protection said they reached the goal three months ahead of schedule.
If the latest pass rate of the polygraph test is any indication, that would mean only about one third of applicants would have been allowed to join the agency. The aim of the act, which also requires periodic background investigations of existing law enforcement agents, was to help curb corruption.
The GAO's report recommends expanding lie-detector tests to current employees, but doing so would be costly - each test costs about $800.
DUI charges common
In the Tucson Sector, agents have been caught with bundles of marijuana or sharing sensor maps and landmarks with smugglers. Some have been charged with violating people's civil rights.
On Nov. 12, 2008, Border Patrol Agents Dario Castillo and Ramon Zuniga encountered four Mexican men who were part of a larger group of drug smugglers in a remote stretch of the border on the Tohono O'odham Nation, according to an indictment in federal court.
Instead of apprehending the suspects, the agents forced them to eat marijuana and strip to their underwear, the indictment states. Then the agents set fire to their belongings and told them to flee into the desert on a night when temperatures were about 40 degrees. The agents were indicted in 2011, and their trial is set for April.
But most incidents of the Border Patrol misconduct that Tucson lawyer Jim Calle sees have to do with driving under the influence of alcohol. He represents the local union, National Border Patrol Council 2544.
"Border Patrol agents represent a cross-section of the American society, and in general, are susceptible to the same weaknesses as the rest of us," he said.
The majority of Customs and Border Protection employee arrests - and a number that's rising - are for misconduct such as domestic violence and driving under the influence. More than 2,000 arrests have been made from fiscal years 2005 through 2012.
Federal law enforcement agents are held to much higher standards, Calle said.
"It's fair to say that the vast majority of the agents are extremely intolerant of corruption and misconduct," he said.
To reduce risk of corruption and misconduct, the agency already limits the use of cellphones while agents are in the field, rotates officers to different lanes in the ports of entry without notifying them in advance and uses red-flag technology that alerts supervisors when an officer has not followed standard policies.
As hiring stabilizes, so might the problems of corruption and misconduct, said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. The institute is a research center focused on U.S.-Mexico issues.
The ability to control quality and monitor agents decreases with a rapid increase in the workforce, said Shirk, and "there's no expectation that there will be a rapid or large increase in CBP personnel."
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
Corruption, misconduct incidents
Employees arrested/indicted on corruption charges, such as cooperating with drug smugglers:
Number of arrests for alleged misconduct, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or domestic violence
*Note: as of August 2012 Data for fiscal years 2005-2012
Source: Government Accountability Office analysis of CBP data
U.S. citizens interested in becoming Customs and Border Protection officers or Border Patrol agents must complete:
• online application
• cognitive exam
• be fingerprinted
• financial disclosure
• structured interview
• fitness tests
• medical examinations
• lie-detector test
• background investigation
• drug test
"We grew the Border Patrol very quickly over the last five years. When you bring it up that quickly, you bring people in who may not have been the right people. The bigger the numbers, the more likely you are going to have an element who is corrupt."
Ron Barber, U.S. representative
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at email@example.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.