Corruption a problem at Customs and Border Protection, agency head says

More than 125 U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees have been arrested or indicted on corruption charges for smuggling drugs or illegal aliens, laundering money, and conspiracy since 2004, according to the agency’s top official.

In one case an agent attempted to smuggle 100 kilograms of marijuana across the border, while in another case a CBP officer - using official credentials - allegedly tried to swindle a Korean citizen out of $220,000 for a fake school’s computer program. In yet another case, an agent allegedly tried to pocket $1,700 in cash from an abandoned vehicle during an internal affairs sting operation. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The inspector general has more than 600 open named investigations of CBP employees, according to recent Senate testimony. The vast majority of those stem from allegations of corruption or suspicious behavior.

The statistics come as the agency, charged with protecting the nation’s borders, has more than doubled in size during the same time period to reach its current strength of 20,700 agents in an attempt to stop the flow of money, drugs and humans into and out of the country, particularly along the border with Mexico.

As the CBP has increased its manpower along the border, the Mexican drug cartels have sharpened their tactics as well, often by attempting to bribe and gain the trust of border agents to further their illicit activity.

Of the 127 arrests over the past six years, 95 are considered “mission compromising” acts of corruption. The rise in corruption charges comes as Mexican President Felipe Calderon continues to pursue an open war on the country's drug cartels, who operate with near impunity and who have contributed to the killings of more than 35,000 people since 2006.

“President Calderon's decision to confront the transnational criminal organizations that previously operated with impunity and trafficked drugs and aliens from Mexico, combined with CBP's increased hiring of agents and officers, amplified the incentives and opportunities for corruption of the CBP workforce through bribery, infiltration or other means,” said Alan Bersin, the CBP commissioner in testimony before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee last week.

“In the vast majority of cases, we brought exceptional new agents and officers on board, but in some cases, I fully acknowledge that the agency has suffered from the corruption of employees that have disgraced the service and betrayed the trust of the American public and their fellow officers, agents and mission support personnel.”

To try to fight the growing level of corruption within the CBP, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Anti-Border Corruption Act of 2010, which requires the CBP, by 2013, to give all law enforcement applicants a polygraph test before being hired. The law also requires the CBP to give polygraphs and background checks to existing employees, which has increased the already large testing backlog within the agency.

“I will tell you, in the course of reviewing these, we do come across cases in which people reveal themselves to either have criminal backgrounds, outright criminal backgrounds, or links to organized criminal elements based in Mexico or gangs based in the United States, which disqualifies them,” said Bersin.

In fiscal year 2011, Bersin said, the CBP administered polygraph tests to 22 percent of applicants. But Bersin said that other federal agencies were sending polygraph testers to help the CBP and he remained optimistic that every employee will have taken a lie-detector test by the end of next year.