By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006; A01
SAN DIEGO -- Federal law enforcement officials are investigating a series of bribery and smuggling cases in what they fear is a sign of increased corruption among officers who patrol the Mexican border.
Two brothers who worked for the U.S. Border Patrol disappeared in June while under investigation for smuggling drugs and immigrants, and are believed to have fled to Mexico. In the past month, two agents from Customs and Border Protection, which guards border checkpoints, were indicted for taking bribes to allow illegal immigrants to enter the United States. And earlier this month, two Border Patrol supervisory agents pleaded guilty to accepting nearly $200,000 in payoffs to release smugglers and illegal immigrants who had been detained.
Authorities say two factors are causing concern that larger problems may develop: The massive buildup of Border Patrol agents in recent years has led to worries that hiring standards have been lowered; and, as smugglers demand higher and higher fees to bring illegal immigrants into the United States, their efforts to bribe those guarding the border have intensified.
The investigations come at a time when the United States is focused on the security of its borders. Congress is mulling legislation that would pour billions of additional dollars into securing the border, including the construction of hundreds more miles of barriers. The Border Patrol, which has tripled in size in the past decade, is due to grow 50 percent in the next six years.
"There is more pressure than ever on smuggling networks to find agents who will work with them," said Andrew Black, an FBI special agent with the multiagency Border Corruption Task Force in San Diego. "As a result, there's tremendous temptation for someone who is less than honest to work with them. Someone who is working on the border can make their salary in a couple of nights."
While the main corruption problem along the border is still among Mexican law enforcement officials, there have been numerous arrests of U.S. officers, too.
Last year in Texas, for example, 10 federal agents were charged with or convicted of taking bribes from drug dealers or human smugglers. Also last year, a U.S. Justice Department operation arrested 17 current or former military and law enforcement officers who were paid $220,000 by undercover agents to allow counterfeit drugs to cross into Arizona. In 2004 and 2005, federal authorities in Arizona uncovered numerous relationships, including marriages, between Border Patrol agents and Latina women illegally in the United States.
"The smugglers have binoculars and spotters, you name it," said James Wong, who heads the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Office of Professional Responsibility in San Diego, which investigates corruption allegations. "They scan the line looking for a weak inspector, someone, for example, who likes to flirt with women. And then they will send a test person, a chatty female. She shows up and says, 'My friend needs to visit a doctor, but she doesn't have papers, can you help?' They will get friendly, and before you know it, they own the employee."
Despite the recent spate of cases around San Diego, the number of federal corruption cases against agents from Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol has not increased since the 2004 fiscal year, according to Kristi Clemens, assistant commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington. So far in fiscal 2006, there have been nine cases. There were 21 the year before and 22 in 2004.
"The bottom line is: If corruption happens anywhere, we're concerned about it, but it's not an upward trend," Clemens said in a telephone interview.
But interviews with other federal law enforcement officials, security experts and a Border Patrol union official paint a less rosy picture.
They note that the Department of Homeland Security can provide only two years of full statistics. There are no data before 2004, because Customs and Border Protection was formed in 2003, when the Customs Bureau and the Immigration and Naturalization Service were merged and divided into several new parts.
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.