A few months after he first donned the green uniform of the Border Patrol, agent Yamilkar Fierros aroused suspicions by asking others about technology used to catch smugglers.
The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general investigated, and with help from the FBI, discovered that the rookie agent from Tucson was taking bribes from smugglers. For a total of $5,500 and on at least four occasions, he served up sensor maps, trail maps, landmarks and terminology used by the Border Patrol.
Fierros was charged with bribery in October 2009 - just seven months after he began working in the Border Patrol's Sonoita station. In May 2011, the agent, now 27, was convicted and sentenced to 20 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $5,500.
Fierros is one of 127 U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees who have been arrested across the nation on corruption, bribery or civil-rights charges since fiscal year 2004. That's a tiny fraction of the agency's 58,981 employees, but the cases are on the rise.
The number of cases against Customs and Border Protection employees initiated each year by the Homeland Security Inspector General has more than doubled from fiscal year 2004 to 2010. Complaints lodged against the agency's employees increased by 38 percent in that span.
The increase has coincided with an unprecedented hiring boom set into motion during the mid-2000s that doubled the size of the Border Patrol and increased the total number of employees in Customs and Border Protection by 44 percent.
The agency includes green-clad Border Patrol agents who patrol between legal entry points as well as blue-clad Customs and Border Protection officers who inspect people and goods at the official border ports of entry.
The agency is paying for shortcuts taken during the hiring boom, said former Border Patrol agent Lee Morgan, who retired in 2006 after 31 years as a federal law-enforcement official with the Justice, Treasury and Homeland Security departments.
"This is just such a tarnish on the badge of the U.S. Border Patrol," said Morgan, who lives in Cochise County.
The agency takes each breach of integrity seriously and acknowledges mistakes made during the accelerated hiring from 2006 to 2008, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin said in recent Senate testimony.
"We pride ourself on being a family. However, when of our own strays into criminality, we do not forgive him or her," Bersin said on June 9 in front of a Senate committee. "This breach of trust is something we do not stand for."
The powerful Mexican drug organizations have stepped up efforts to infiltrate the agency as they become more desperate to get people and drugs across a border that has more agents, barriers and technology, he said.
Yet, the vast majority of employees exhibit commitment, bravery, vigilance and integrity, he said.
The Mexican government's 4-year-old crackdown on drug gangs - an effort aided by the U.S. - is likely more responsible for the increase in corruption than any errors made by the agency during the hiring boom, said Susan Ginsburg, member of the 9/11 Commission and nonresident fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, a centrist think tank.
"They've responded by becoming more aggressive in their efforts with border officials," Ginsburg said.
Customs and Border Protection has actually moved intelligently and aggressively to set up systems to spot corruption and react quickly, Ginsburg said. That includes increasing its internal affairs staff to 624 people, up from 162 in 2006. It also includes implementing behavioral science and analytical-research methods to flag potential corruption, she said.
More safeguards are coming. Under a bill passed by Congress in 2010, Customs and Border Protection will give lie-detector tests to all applicants for enforcement jobs beginning January 2013. This fiscal year, the agency has polygraphed 22 percent of applicants, Bersin said in Senate testimony.
Some of the Cases
Here are some examples of arrests of Customs and Border Protection employees in Arizona:
• Earlier this month in Douglas, a Border Patrol agent working in Arizona on temporary assignment was arrested by Douglas police on suspicion of stealing a woman's purse and using her credit cards to buy $231 in merchandise at Walmart.
The agent, Teofilo Rodarte, 32, was sent back to his home base of El Paso to do administrative duties pending resolution of the case, which is also being investigated by Homeland Security's Inspector General.
• Customs and Border Protection officer Jose Carmelo Magaña, 46, pleaded guilty to taking money to allow illegal immigrants through his lane at the San Luis Port of Entry in 2007, court records show.
• Officer Henry Gauani, 41, coordinated with smugglers to allow loads of ecstasy to go unchecked through his lane at the San Luis Port of Entry in exchange for $33,000 paid to him from 2008 to 2009, court records show.
• Fierros, the 27-year old agent who worked in Sonoita, accepted bribes of between $1,000 to $3,000, records show. One time, he took $3,000 to provide a suspected drug smuggler with a list of 109 Border Patrol sensor locations in Sonoita. Another time, he accepted $1,500 from a drug smuggler in exchange for a list of 65 sensor locations in the Sonoita area and for agreeing to make sure a drug load made it unscathed from Patagonia to Tucson.
• Yuma Border Patrol agent Michael Angelo Atondo, 35, was caught on April 4 by fellow agents in a remote area of the border with 44 bundles of marijuana weighing 745 pounds in his service vehicle, court records show.
Atondo was supposed to be working near Wellton on Interstate 8, but the agents found him at the border after going to see what set off a sensor there, records show. His marked Border Patrol vehicle was backed up to the border fence with two SUVs backed up to the fence on the Mexican side of the border, records show. They also say he was standing outside of his vehicle with his uniform on, but without his name tape on his shirt.
He has been indicted for importing and possessing marijuana with intent to distribute, and faces 5 to 40 years in prison.
• Border Patrol agents Dario Castillo, 23, and Ramon Zuniga, 29, are charged with violating people's civil rights on Nov. 12, 2008, in a remote stretch of border on the Tohono O'odham Nation, according to an indictment in federal court.
The agents encountered four Mexican men who were part of larger group of drug smugglers. Instead of apprehending them, the agents forced them to eat marijuana and strip to their underwear. The agents set fire to their belongings and told the men to flee into the desert on a night when temperatures were about 40 degrees, the indictment shows.
Steps to prevent corruption
Three-quarters of the 127 Customs and Border Protection employees arrested since 2004 were for "mission-compromising acts of corruption," Bersin said.
The cases, which include bribery, trafficking drugs and release of sensitive law-enforcement information, take top priority at DHS Office of the Inspector General, Acting Inspector General Charles Edwards said in testimony to Congress in June.
Fewer than half - 44 percent - of the 613 active cases as of June against Customs and Border Protection employees are corruption cases, he said. The rest are civil-rights charges, or suspicious activities such as personal relationships or misuse of government credit cards.
The inspector general's 213 full-time criminal investigators aren't enough to keep up with all the complaints against the 225,000 employees in the Department of Homeland Security, which includes Customs and Border Protection, Edwards said. The growth of his office - just 6 percent from 2006 to 2009 - hasn't kept up with the growth of the department, he said.
The office handles all complaints about Customs and Border Protection employees, though some are referred to the CBP Office of Internal Affairs, which works with the FBI and ICE on border corruption cases.
Bersin said his agency is taking steps to address corruption from within, re-investigating employees' backgrounds every five years throughout their career.
But there is a backlog of 15,000 of these re-investigations due to the hiring boom, Bersin said.
It's one of several challenges the agency faces in screening its employees. Customs and Border Protection also needs to hire 17 additional polygraphers to have the 52 it needs to to conduct lie detector tests on all new hires by January 2013, Bersin said.
The agency knows agents and officers with insight into how the government combats smuggling attempts are prime targets of drug organizations.
"Our most valuable - as well as, in some rare cases, are most vulnerable - resources," Bersin said, "are our employees."
Analysts expect infiltration attempts by criminal organizations to continue, causing more corruption cases.
"This will continue to be a problem, and an increasing problem," said Ginsburg, of the Migration Policy Center. "As long as there is an illegal market with virtually unlimited funds in the hands of the drug-trafficking organizations, they can be expected to use those funds to pursue their interests."
On StarNet: Read more about border-related issues in Brady McCombs' blog, Border Boletín, at go.azstarnet.com/borderboletin
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org