Page 3 of 5   <       >

U.S. worker's case reveals how drug cartels get help from this side of border

corruption investigations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees
Sources: Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General | Graphic: The Washington Post

In November 1997, authorities seized nearly 100 pounds of marijuana on the Bridge of the Americas into El Paso. An informant fingered Garnica as part of the conspiracy, according to two investigators. The FBI opened a case, but it went nowhere.

In March 2005, she came under scrutiny again. That week, a van packed with 531 pounds of marijuana tried to enter the United States through the lane Garnica was staffing.

She was not originally scheduled to work the lane that day, but "the duty roster had been tampered with," said James Smith, head of the inspector general's investigative unit in El Paso.

As the van neared Garnica in the inspection booth, drug-sniffing dogs detected the marijuana and agents arrested the driver.

Others on the scene reported that Garnica looked shaken and left for the day, Smith said. But despite the mounting suspicions, authorities lacked the evidence to suspend or charge Garnica.

"We kept hitting dead ends," Smith said.

Four years passed before they got their big break. In the spring of 2009, a CBP employee contacted Smith's office. Garnica, he said, was overly friendly; he suspected she was trying to lure him into the smuggling business.

The man was the perfect target, right out of the Cold War-era espionage handbook. He was recently divorced, with a child heading to college and a modest government salary. He was struggling to pay his bills.

"It's no different from spy agencies," Smith said. "They look for weaknesses. Sex is a biggie. Alcohol, drug abuse, financial woes."

The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because officials say his life is in danger, agreed to work undercover. His code name would be Angel.

The recruitment

It began subtly with chatty text messages, then drinks in a bar. They would talk about the weather and gripe about work, intermingling Spanish and English as so many people along the border do.

Within a few months, they were meeting for dinner. Garnica always picked up the tab and Angel always wore a wire, their taped conversations and text messages sent directly to Smith and his team in the inspector general's office.

<          3           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company