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Mexican drug cartels: Corruption at the border

Lots of attention is paid to the role of corrupt Mexican officials in drug trafficking, but the story of Martha Garnica, a U.S. border agent, reveals how a similar problem has grown on the other side of the border.

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Thomas M. Frost
Asst. Inspector General for Investigations, Dept. of Homeland Security
Monday, September 13, 2010; 11:00 AM

Thomas M. Frost, assistant inspector general for investigations at the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General, was online Monday, Sept. 13, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss Ceci Connolly's Post article about drug cartels employing Cold War-era spy tactics to recruit and corrupt U.S. officials.

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"In order to stay in business, the drug trfficking organizations have to look at different methods for moving product," said Frost. "The surest method is by corrupting a border official. The amount of money available to corrupt employees is staggering."

Read more: Woman's links to Mexican drug cartel a saga of corruption on U.S. side of border

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Louisville, KY: What drugs are being smuggled? What impact would legalization/decriminalization of some drugs have on the cartels?

Thomas W. Frost: Cocaine and Heroin for the most part. There is no doubt that demand drives the marketplace. Keep in mind, human smuggling and the smuggling of cash and guns also factors into the entire equation.

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Houston, Texas: Do you think that Mexico's 200 year attempt at democracy has failed? And if so, what policies can we implement to hinder the spread of infiltration of the ranks on this side of the border?

Funding, and training the Mexican federales doesn't seem to be working. They get trained, and defect to the opposing team. The only difference I see in the way we fight the cartels is that the U.S. just has a few more people we can trust on our team.

Thomas W. Frost: Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of our officers and agents who protect the border are dedicated and honorable. Combatting the infiltration of their ranks calls for attcking the issue on multiple fronts, including employee awareness and training; better screening of applicants; periodic background updates for employees; as well as our ongoing vigorous law enforcement efforts.

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Baltimore MD: After reading this piece, I am way beyond impressed at the guts and incorruptibility of the agent known as "Angel." I only hope he has received a promotion and had also been given a duty station far from El Paso/Jaurez. He deserves both. Thanks.

Thomas W. Frost: Thank you. Angel certainly went above the call of duty to honor his oath and commitment to serve our country. In truth, many of the agents, officers and criminal investigators involved in securing our borders are silent heroes. The few who are corrupt will ultimately and eventually be weeded out through the dedication of those men and women.

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Washington, DC: It seems to me that her lifestyle should have tipped people off earlier that something was wrong. Perhaps there should be some periodic audit of employees to see if they are living beyond what their salary would allow.

Thomas W. Frost: Excellent point. CBP is behind such a program now that provides for periodic background updates of its employees. We also feel that education of co-workers into signs to look for and a remeinder of the potential serious national security ramifications of border corruption are a powerful tool.

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arlington, VA: Can you discuss how this kind of CBP corruption by the Drug Cartels has extended up the chain into DHS and other departments within DHS?

And also has this corruption expanded into law enforcement localities further north into the interior of the US?

Thomas W. Frost: As I said in a related question, in context of the overall workforce, the incidence of corruption is small. But corruption within the DHS, whether at the hands of drug cartels, human trafficking organization, other organized crime, or individuals, does exist. It exists, as in any organization of govenmental agency when the greedy few betray their oath to serve and defend. In the case of a department charged with protecting borders, securing transportation systems and adjudicating immigration benefits, the stakes are very high. That is why the Office of Inspector General investigates every allegation of corruption with respect to these areas.

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Rockville, MD: Mr. Frost,

Thank you for hosting this chat. Ms. Connolly's piece was outstanding, and one of the more striking parts of it was how La Estrella was considered dirty for years before she was busted. The 'steal little' (falsifying injury forms) seems like a short leap to 'steal big' (working with traffickers). At the risk of starting a firestorm, was Estrella protected by her union? I understand that there's due process, but it seems like there was ample opportunity to crack down on her activities; was the OIG hampered at all by union rules? I'm not trying to slam Labor, but law enforcement needs to fall under a stronger microscope than other CBA-protected groups.

Thomas W. Frost: Thank you. Indeed, the case against this particular employee was in many respects "a game of inches" with hard evidence to support formal charges just out of reach and perhaps frustrating. I think the perseverance of our investigating agents and prosecutors is testimony to their dedication. The OIG was not hampered by the union.

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Fairfax, VA: It seems improbable that a person working for the government would be able to afford such an apparent opulent lifestyle. Where were the supervisors who should be monitoring the behavior of their subordinates, particularly displays of affluence beyond what the ordinary an honest agent can afford?

Thomas W. Frost: We see the employee work force as a valuable asset in combatting corruption. Education of DHS employees that they can report suspcious activities confidentiality to an Office of Inspector General (OIG) with whom they have confidence that their allegation will be acted upon professionally, efficiently, and without instituting a witch-hunt of an innocent employee. The OIG has provided over 600 integrity briefings to employees this year.

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Reston, Va: Would it be possible to have fully automated entrance and exit points along the border... with no humans?

Perhaps require passengers insert passports into an ATM type of machine while the passengers are photgraphed. Use analyzer equipment to determine contents within vehicle. If ok, open gate.

Then, using software to determine and rank problems, alert authorities to stop the vehicle and check things out if need be?

Thomas W. Frost: I think for the forseeable future, the department will continue to rely on a mix of technology and human assets. The key is to leverage the advantages of both to establish an effective balance.

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Thomas W. Frost: Thank you all for your thoughtful questions. I've learned a lot from listening to you and hope my answers have helped you also. I am sorry to have to sign off. Thank you again. Your continued support for the Office of Inspector General is appreciated.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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