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Bribery At Border Worries Officials

While the number of cases referred for prosecution may not have increased, the massive influx of new recruits onto the border is of concern to investigators, said one senior official involved in corruption cases at the border. The Border Patrol is now the nation's largest law enforcement agency, with more than 11,000 personnel, and continues to expand.

"The feeling is with the pressure to hire more individuals to monitor the border, perhaps the weeding-out process has not been as diligent as it should be," said the official, who requested anonymity because he was talking about another federal agency.

Last year, Border Patrol agent Oscar Antonio Ortiz pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle 100 people into the country. Authorities discovered that Ortiz was an illegal immigrant born in Mexico, having used a false birth certificate to pass himself off as a U.S. citizen.

More than 90 percent of U.S. law enforcement agencies use psychological tests or polygraphs in their recruiting, but the Border Patrol does not. Kevin Gilmartin, a Tucson-based law enforcement consultant who has worked with the FBI and local law enforcement for two decades, said the Border Patrol must raise its standards and administer polygraph tests.

"If a local law enforcement agency used the hiring practices of the Border Patrol, I am confident that it would be found negligent," Gilmartin said. "And it's highly doubtful that a local city police officer would compromise national security. But a corrupt border patrol agent is clearly capable of affecting national security."

Customs and Border Protection's Clemens defended the agency's recruiting, saying that only one in 30 applicants to the Border Patrol is accepted after screening. "We think our screening process is pretty rigorous," she said.

T.J. Bonner, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents Border Patrol agents, said, contrary to the statistics, corruption is increasing among the rank and file, but the agency does not welcome whistle-blowers.

"People are told to shut up and not make waves," he said. "It's my impression that things are worsening, not to the degree that should cause people to lose trust in the agency. But I think that it's to the degree that the agency needs to take a long, hard, inward look and try to uncover the causes of this recent trend."

Bonner said a 2004 study, commissioned in part by his union, showed a significant morale problem among agents for the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection. In the survey of 500 agents, by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, the results of which were challenged by the Department of Homeland Security, 60 percent said morale was low to very low. Four out of nine said they had considered leaving in the past year. And while nine out of 10 said stopping terrorists was now a big part of their job, the majority said they had not been given the tools and training to do the job.

"Morale is the lowest I've ever seen, and I've been around for 28 years," Bonner said.

The Border Patrol agents who disappeared in June were brothers Raul and Fidel Villarreal. Before they disappeared, Raul Villarreal had been angry with the agency about the transfer policy, according to a former colleague, who requested anonymity because the men are under investigation.

Raul was based in Mexico for several years. While there, he made public-service announcements for Mexican television about the dangers of dealing with smugglers, known as coyotes. With his looks, Villarreal played the role -- ironically in light of the corruption investigation -- of a coyote.

He had recently been transferred back to the United States from Mexico City and was back "on the line," working the border, the colleague said. "He seemed pretty upset about it," he said. "And this is a guy who used to love the Border Patrol."

Authorities, though, said the brothers are fugitives now and that officials are actively looking for them -- and whoever tipped them off to the investigation.

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