By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 4:13 AM
EL PASO - She lived a double life. At the border crossing, she was Agent Garnica, a veteran law enforcement officer. In the shadows, she was "La Estrella," the star, a brassy looker who helped drug cartels make a mockery of the U.S. border.
Martha Garnica devised secret codes, passed stacks of cash through car windows and sketched out a map for smugglers to safely haul drugs and undocumented workers across the border. For that she was richly rewarded; she lived in a spacious house with a built-in pool, owned two Hummers and vacationed in Europe.
For years, until an intricate sting operation brought her down in late 2009, Garnica embodied the seldom-discussed role of the United States in the trafficking trade.
Cartels based in Mexico, where there is a long history of corruption, increasingly rely on well-placed operatives such as Garnica to reach their huge customer base in the United States. It is an argument often made by Mexican officials - that all the attention paid to corruption in their country has obscured a similar, growing problem on the U.S. side of the border.
The cartels have grown so sophisticated, law enforcement officials say, that they are employing Cold War-era spy tactics to recruit and corrupt U.S. officials.
"In order to stay in business, the drug trafficking organizations have to look at different methods for moving product," said Thomas Frost, an assistant inspector general in the Department of Homeland Security. "The surest method is by corrupting a border official. The amount of money available to corrupt employees is staggering."
In late August, Garnica's double life ended. U.S. District Judge David Briones sentenced her to 20 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to six counts of drug smuggling, human trafficking and bribery. She was, in the words of prosecutors, a "valued asset" of the crime syndicate La Linea based in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, directing the movements of at least five men, four of whom are in prison or dead.
"Everybody makes mistakes," she said in court, wearing handcuffs and an orange prison jumpsuit. "I take responsibility for my mistakes."
Garnica's saga - pieced together from hundreds of pages of court testimony, tape-recorded conversations, and interviews with border officials, investigators, undercover agents and members of the judiciary - underscores the enormous challenge facing the United States as it tries to curtail the $25 billion-a-year business of illegal drug trafficking.
Corruption is on the rise in the ranks of U.S. law enforcement working the border, and nowhere is the problem more acute than in the frontline jobs with Garnica's former employer, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, according to federal investigators. Garnica's stiff sentence represented a rare victory in the struggle to root out tainted government employees.
Homeland Security statistics suggest the rush to fill thousands of border enforcement jobs has translated into lower hiring standards. Barely 15 percent of Customs and Border Protection applicants undergo polygraph tests and of those, 60 percent were rejected by the agency because they failed the polygraph or were not qualified for the job, said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who oversees a Senate subcommittee on homeland security.
The number of CBP corruption investigations opened by the inspector general climbed from 245 in 2006 to more than 770 this year. Corruption cases at its sister agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, rose from 66 to more than 220 over the same period. The vast majority of corruption cases involve illegal trafficking of drugs, guns, weapons and cash across the Southwest border.
"We have in our country today a big presence of the Mexican cartels," Pryor said. "With about 50 percent of the nation's methamphetamine and marijuana coming through Mexico and about 90 percent of the cocaine, there is a huge financial incentive for cartels to try to corrupt our people."
CBP Commissioner Alan D. Bersin said the rise in investigations might simply correspond to the rapid growth in personnel.
Corruption of "customs officials all over the world has been a perennial problem of border inspection and border enforcement," he said in an interview. "What we haven't seen is a vast conspiracy in the workforce."
Still, Frost said, it takes only a handful of dirty government workers on the inside to make millions for the cartels.
"It would be naive to think a $1 billion smuggling industry would allow itself to be dependent on one or two corrupt employees, or if you eliminate that corrupt employee that they won't try to corrupt someone else," he said.'An air about her'
There was always something about Martha Garnica that just didn't feel right.
As early as 1997, colleagues had suspicions about the assertive young mother of two who had worked seven years as an El Paso cop before joining the U.S. Customs Service. (Her division became part of CBP in 2003.)
Garnica had a pattern of filing questionable workplace injury claims and socialized in bars popular among drug dealers.
"There was an air about her that made her suspect," said Ed Abud, an internal affairs officer at CBP El Paso who was involved in the investigation.
Garnica's adult daughter and attorney refused interview requests. In court, her attorney pleaded for leniency and counseling, saying Garnica had been the victim of abuse by a family member and a boyfriend.
Abud said he now believes Garnica transferred to the federal agency with an eye toward criminal smuggling activities.
"She came on board probably with the main purpose of trying to exploit the border for herself," he said recently. "She figured, 'What's in it for me?' "
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.
"Garnica was becoming his best friend," Smith said. "Good recruiters don't just jump into it. They chip through the wall. That's what she was doing."
On Aug. 1, 2009, Garnica invited Angel to Jaguar's, a strip club in east El Paso, to meet a man she described as a drug trafficker. She and her boyfriend, Carlos Ramirez-Rosalez, arrived in a Hummer, according to court records.
The group met in a VIP lounge, where Hugo Alberto Flores Colmenero told Angel he could supply him with money and a weapon, specifically a Glock semi-automatic pistol. They exchanged phone numbers.
Garnica offered to pay for a stripper for Angel; he demurred, saying he had a new girlfriend.
"There's plenty of fish in the sea," Garnica replied, according to the tape recording.
Angel left Jaguar's around 11 p.m. At 2 a.m., Flores Colmenero left him a voice message. In a stroke of luck for investigators, instead of hanging up, Flores Colmenero switched to a call on another line - all of it recorded by the inspector general's team.
"I've met with el cuatro," or "the fourth," he said, referring to Angel. He called Garnica "la original."
It was a disturbing revelation.
"We take that to mean that there are two or three other people that Garnica has brought into the organization," said Juanita Fielden, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case.
A few days later, over dinner at the restaurant La Mar, Flores Colmenero gave Angel $500 in cash. They brainstormed about how best to smuggle "motita" - marijuana - into the States. At the time, Angel was working the "cargo" lanes designated for large vehicles. They discussed using a van or renting a truck and debated ways to camouflage the drugs, perhaps buried deep in a pallet of tiles or a load of televisions.
On Aug. 19, one of Flores Colmenero's brothers was killed in a shootout at the Seven & Seven bar in Juarez. The next time Angel saw Garnica, she explained that Flores Colmenero had gone into hiding. Before they parted, she handed him $200.
In late September 2009, after four months of secret meetings and text messages, free drinks and small bribes, Garnica decided to test Angel. Until then they had only talked about dirty deals. Now she wanted action.
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' 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.