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Cartel corruption reaches into the ranks of U.S. border agents, officials say

June 13, 2011 | 11:06 am

Alan bersin reforma archive

Mexican drug cartels are increasingly luring U.S. border agents into smuggling operations with offers of cash and sex, authorities acknowledged in Washington last week.

Top officials in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told a Senate subcommittee during a hearing on Thursday that Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are attempting to generate "systematic corruption" among the ranks of U.S. customs and border patrol agents, forcing the agency to open hundreds of internal investigations on employees.

Charles Edwards, acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, told the subcommittee that corruption on the border has taken the form of "cash bribes, sexual favors, and other gratuities in return for allowing contraband or undocumented aliens through primary inspection lanes or even protecting or escorting border crossings," according to a transcript of the official's testimony.

Since 2004, authorities have made 127 arrests or indictments against border employees for acts of corruption "including drug smuggling, alien smuggling, money laundering, and conspiracy," said Alan Bersin, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner.

The figure is small relative to the size of the U.S. border force -- more than 20,700 officers.

But as previously reported by La Plaza, the Customs and Border Protection agency, which operates within the Department of Homeland Security, has doubled the size of its ranks since 2004 in the push during the Bush administration to beef up security on the border. Only one in 10 of those recent hires underwent polygraph tests, an investigation by the Associated Press found. Of those tested, 60% were deemed unsuitable for hiring, suggesting that many agents now patrolling the U.S. border with Mexico may have joined "with corruption already in mind."

"CBP found that its workforce was younger, less experienced, and in need of seasoned supervisors," Bersin said of the hiring boom. 

The commissioner added: "The accelerated hiring pace under which we operated between 2006 and 2008 –- and, frankly, mistakes from which we are learning –- exposed critical organizational and individual vulnerabilities within CBP."

Bersin said the agency was seeking to correct the corruption issue, pointing to a widening caseload of investigations into criminal misconduct among agents and employees. Last year, Congress passed the Anti-Border Corruption Act of 2010, which requires that all applicants to law enforcement positions in U.S. Custom and Border Protection be screened by a polygraph test. 

The corruption revelations come as Washington prepares to confront another scandal related to the drug war in hearings scheduled this week. Monday, Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Vista) is set to lead the first congressional hearing on the government's failed "Fast and Furious" operation, in which hundreds of assault weapons were permitted to "walk" into Mexico and into the hands of cartel hitmen in an effort to track them to high-profile drug targets.

The program continued despite the vigorous protests of agents in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, The Times has reported. Whistleblowers claim it contributed to the extreme violence that has gripped much of northern Mexico. One of the operation's guns was involved in the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona last December, and another was traced to the shooting death of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent, killed on a road in Mexico in February.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin, in a file photo. Credit: Reforma.

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