Corruption Compromises U.S. Border Security

The Department of Homeland Security is battling corruption in its ranks. In the past year, nearly a dozen officials, including border agents and customs officials, have been arrested for letting hundreds of illegal immigrants slip into the country on their watch.

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And I'm Lynn Neary.

Now a story about the Department of Homeland Security's battle against corruption in its ranks.

Over the past six months, at least ten U.S. customs and border agents have been caught accepting bribes from Mexican smuggling organizations. In exchange for the cash, agents have admitted to looking the other way as tons of drugs and thousands of illegal immigrants slip into the country.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: San Diego Customs Agent Richard Gilliland did more than just look the other way. According to authorities, the 16-year veteran who liked to work the graveyard shift was caught on surveillance tape waving caravans of cars packed with illegal immigrants through his inspection lane. Gilliland's reported cut: $1,500 per smuggled immigrant.

Agent ANDREW BLACK (San Diego Border Corruption Task Force, Federal Bureau of Investigations): There's a tremendous temptation for someone who's less than honest, because at $1,000 or $1,500 per individual, a corrupt inspector can make his salary easily in a week.

KAHN: FBI Special Agent Andrew Black heads up the San Diego Border Corruption Task Force. He says corruption along the border is on the rise. And, Black adds, when you have a corrupt agent allowing uninspected vehicles into the country, this is a serious threat to the nation's security.

Agent BLACK: And this inspector, keep in mind, doesn't know who these individuals are, what country they're from or what else may be concealed in that vehicle. There's been incidents of individuals from other countries who've smuggled in.

KAHN: Any on terrorist watch list (unintelligible)?

Agent BLACK: I shouldn't really be commenting on those issues right now.

KAHN: Investigators say one of the people Gilliland waved through was a wanted felon, and among the items reportedly seized at the agent's home, $18,000 in Iraqi dinars. Not all U.S. officials agree that corruption is greater now than before. Figures from the Department of Homeland Security go back only three years. And many officials insist the recent string of arrests is the culmination of long-term investigations all coming to fruition at the same time.

Unidentified Man #1: Sir, how're you doing, sir?

Unidentified Man #2: Fine.

Unidentified Man #1: Are you bringing anything from Mexico?

Unidentified Man #2: No.

Unidentified Man #1: Are you bringing any plants, fruits or meats?

KAHN: Investigators say the vast majority of the nearly 30,000 front-line agents guarding the U.S. borders are honest and diligent. But corruption along the Southwest border has long been part of the region's lore, especially in small towns where future agents grow up alongside future traffickers and where greedy or disgruntled agents can be seduced.

(Soundbite of song "The Line")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer): (Singing) There's a bar in Tijuana...

KAHN: Back in the '90s, Bruce Springsteen sang about an agent led astray by a Mexican woman.

(Soundbite of song "The Line")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singer) We met there. She said her name was Louisa.

KAHN: Attorney Eugene Iredale says that's what happened to his client, Richard Elizalda, a ten-year veteran Customs agent.

Mr. EUGENE IREDALE (Attorney): Instead of being a person who acted out of motives of greed and avarice and a desire for money and material gain, he acted out of love.

KAHN: As Iredale tells the story, Elizalda, a recent divorcee, was at a vulnerable time in his life when two flirtatious Mexican women came through his inspection lane. Elizalda took the bait. The agent and one of the women struck up a relationship caught on government wiretaps.

(Soundbite of surveillance tape)

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Mr. RICHARD ELIZALDA (Former Customs Agent): Hello. How are you doing?

Unidentified Woman: What are you doing?

Mr. ELIZALDA: Nothing.

Unidentified Woman: Nothing?

KAHN: According to court documents, within a few months Elizalda was colluding with the woman to ferry illegal immigrants through his lane. Authorities say he used text messages and clandestine cell phone calls to direct the smuggling ring's drivers to his inspection lane. In his plea agreement, Elizalda admitted to smuggling hundreds of illegal immigrants for cash.

Authorities seized two luxury cars and expensive diamond jewelry from his home.

(Soundbite of surveillance tape)

Unidentified Woman: That's it. That's all I can offer you.

Mr. ELIZALDA: Okay.

KAHN: Now, as the border patrol is about to double its ranks, there's a call for tighter screening of enlistees. But recent corruption cases show that veteran agents, not rookies, have been the biggest problem. James Tomsheck, the assistant commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, says one solution is periodic integrity reviews for everyone.

Mr. JAMES TOMSHECK (Assistant Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol): I don't know that any one thing or if any of our actions are ever enough. We're always looking for new means and different means to identify corruption in our workforce.

KAHN: The Department of Homeland Security says more than 6,000 allegations of misconduct and corruption were made last year. Of that, more than 1,000 involved criminal activity. That's a lot of work for about 200 investigators nationwide.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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