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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

She gave Angel a minor task: sign a form claiming the injury she suffered playing volleyball actually occurred at work. He did what he was told.

Confident that she'd reeled him in, she asked for something more serious. She wanted him to request a change in his work assignment: Move to the Ysleta Port of Entry, the smallest of the three El Paso border stations, and switch to the midnight shift when traffic is the lightest. Investigators say smugglers prefer off-peak hours to ensure they can steer into the lane of a friendly inspector without being blocked by clogged traffic.

For investigators, each meeting and message provided insight into the methods and mind-set of the cartels.

"We were able to see the entire recruitment process play out through Angel," Smith said. "It starts with small probes. If you're willing to do that, it escalates."

New recruits get tested, and with each test they pass it becomes more difficult for them to refuse, he said.

For the next few weeks, Angel met often with Garnica and Ramirez-Rosalez, discussing money, vehicles and a plan to smuggle a friend into the country. The person would ride in a white Volkswagen Beetle with a company logo on the doors.

In the predawn darkness of Sunday, Oct. 11, the vehicle approached the Ysleta border crossing station and steered into Angel's inspection lane. Inside were two of Ramirez-Rosalez's brothers, both undocumented Mexicans who would eventually be arrested as part of Garnica's smuggling ring. At the time, Angel made a show of checking the driver's identification, then waved the Volkswagen through. Investigators followed the car straight to Garnica's house.

"We couldn't believe it," said one of the agents.

At 7 a.m., Garnica sent Angel a text message: "Prueba de fuego. Superada." Trial by fire. Passed.

The following afternoon, Angel, Garnica and Ramirez-Rosalez met in a McDonald's parking lot. From the passenger-side window of one of her Hummers, Garnica handed Angel a pile of $20 bills wrapped in a piece of paper.

"It's 500," she said.

Undercover risks

Angel was suffering the strains of his own double life: undercover agent to a tight circle of investigators, dirty employee to many of his co-workers.

Investigators worried about his safety and the psychological effects of "living a lie," as Smith put it.

"I was nervous from Day One," Angel said in an interview after Garnica was sentenced. "I was always afraid her associates would get on to me."

As the undercover operation continued, the inspector general's office pored over Garnica's phone records and finances. She had two homes, two Hummers, a Cadillac and a truck. Her extended family took cruises, traveled to Europe and decorated one house with ostentatious statues and a fountain - signs she was living above her government salary.

In several instances, Garnica's number turned up in the cellphones of convicted drug traffickers and money launderers. Vehicles used in other smuggling cases appeared at her homes, according to surveillance information.

On the night before Halloween, Garnica summoned Angel to the Agave bar. They had been talking for days about a big shipment - two large vehicles. The payoff would be several thousand dollars.

Angel raced to meet Garnica; he had less than an hour before his shift began. He had trouble finding the bar, he said later, and when he spotted it, a pair of beefy men were guarding the door. "That made me uncomfortable," he said.

"I felt like everybody in the bar looked me up and down when I walked in," he said later.

As he scanned the room, Garnica pulled him aside to a table. She handed him a Nextel walkie-talkie-style phone and a cocktail napkin with 12 ordinary phrases written in Spanish. Each corresponded to a lane at the port.

"You have to memorize this," she said. Angel hurried out of the bar to change his clothes and report for work.

Around 1 a.m., Angel pushed the button on the phone and said simply: "Esta haciendo mucho frio" - it's very cold out. The code words meant he was working Lane 10.

But Garnica, who investigators spotted watching the station in one of her Hummers, messaged back: "Hay mucha de la fea." The slangy phrase translates roughly: "There's a lot of ugliness" - criminal code warning of the presence of Mexican military or law enforcement. They aborted the delivery.

A week later, Angel and Garnica repeated the routine, Angel again remarking on the cold weather to direct smugglers to Lane 10. He'd been given $3,500 in advance and told to look for a red pickup truck.

When the truck reached Angel in the booth, he recognized Garnica's nephew in the passenger seat and one of Ramirez-Rosalez's brothers behind the wheel.

"I acted like it was a normal inspection," he recalled. "I stalled for a few minutes to make it look like I was checking the vehicle." Then he waved the pair through.

Just up the road, El Paso police stopped the truck, loaded with more than 160 pounds of marijuana, and arrested the pair. Two days later, a federal grand jury meeting in secret indicted Garnica and her co-conspirators.

Garnica, unaware of the indictments or Angel's role in the sting, prepared to bring across another load. The next shipment was set for the night of Nov. 17. At the last minute, investigators told Angel to call it off.

"We'd already indicted Garnica and we didn't want to take any more risks," Smith said.

The next day, La Estrella was behind bars.

News researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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