Texas National Guardsmen Accused of Smuggling

Three men with the Texas National Guard assigned to help strengthen patrols along the Texas-Mexico border were charged with transporting illegal immigrants into the U.S. Cases of corruption among public servants working along the border have increased.

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In that same speech yesterday, the president endorsed the plan to spend $4.4 billion for increased border security. But in the end, it's people, not dollars, who have to make the security work. And there's been a wave of public servants along the border arrested for smuggling. One of the latest cases comes from Texas, where three Texas National Guard soldiers were supposed to keep illegal immigrants out. They were charged this week with transporting illegal immigrants into the country.

NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT: The federal courthouse in Laredo was a busy place on Monday. In one courtroom, a former border patrol agent, William Ferrone, was being sentenced to federal prison for his role in a scheme to smuggle a group of 11 Mexican and Honduran nationals up Interstate 35.

In another courtroom, a federal magistrate charged three National Guardsmen, Jose Rodrigo Torres, Julio Cesar Pacheco and Clarence Hodge with transporting a group of 24 illegals in a white Ford van to San Antonio.

According to the criminal complaint, the three Texans allegedly used their guard uniforms to fool border patrol agents and exchanged text messages to coordinate their smuggling trips.

Federal investigators discovered messages in a Guardsman's cell phone. A sample: Incoming - okay, it sounds pretty good, but we need to take 24 people to make that happen, and you will get 3,500. Does that sound good? Outgoing -24 will be tough to fit, but I'll try.

Lieutenant General Chuck Rodriguez is the adjutant general of the Texas Military Forces.

Lieutenant General CHUCK RODRIGUEZ (Adjutant General, Texas Military Force): The news that came out, of course, is a disappointment, largely because the actions of a few people are very non-representative of the actions of 33,000 folks in the National Guard who've already served for the past year-plus on the border.

BURNETT: Rodriguez says the National Guard tries to orient or caution its soldiers that they're going into a temptation-rich environment.

Lt. Gen. RODRIGUEZ: Before we send them down to the border, we remind them of the culture that they're going into, of the challenges of that culture. In Spanish it's called contrabandistas, which is the contraband traffic of goods and people.

BURNETT: This is not the first case of its kind. In 2002, in a scene reminiscent of corrupt Mexican soldiers, according to a federal indictment, uniformed members of the Arizona Army National Guard drove military Humvees to a desert air strip near Tucson, met a drug plane, then sold a 120 pounds of cocaine to an undercover FBI agent. Fifty-five people in all have pleaded guilty in the case.

The arrest of the Texas Guardsmen, however, is the first incident involving members of the National Guard who were rushed to the border as part of a highly publicized crackdown that began a year ago. Incense of public bribery have paralleled the federal buildup along the southern divide. The U.S. border patrol has tripled in size in the past decade, and it's supposed to grow by half again.

Manny Mora, special agent in charge of the El Paso FBI, says it's logical. The more agents guarding the border, the more corruption there'll be.

Mr. MANNY MORA (Special Agent, FBI): It's not that difficult to identify border officers. These are all relatively small communities where people are born and raised. And they stay in the area, so many of the folks have relatives across the border. The traffickers recognize that. And they have the resources to offer significant bribes.

BURNETT: In an investigation published last fall, the Los Angeles Times calculated at least 200 public employees in the borderlands have been charged with helping to smuggle drugs or humans since 2004. They include border patrol agents, customs inspectors, local police, prison guards and uniform personnel of every branch of the U.S. military, including the National Guard.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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