14 March 2010

Plata O Plomo: Corruption Worsens Along U.S. - Mexican Border

It is well past time for us to get serious about security along our border. Not only is it a threat to our security, but our porous border is causing real mayhem in Mexico.

US Customs: Mexican cartels corrupt border agents

Mexican drug cartels are infiltrating federal law enforcement agencies along the southwest border and those charged with weeding them out say they don't have the money to catch all the corrupt agents, homeland security officials told a U.S. Senate panel Thursday.

James Tomsheck, assistant commissioner with U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Internal Affairs, told a Senate homeland security subcommittee in Washington that only about one in 10 of the new hires for agency jobs are given polygraph tests, and of those, 60 percent are deemed unsuitable for employment.

That means that many who joined the agency during the recent hiring boom and did not take polygraphs could have joined with corruption already in mind, Tomsheck said.

"That 60 percent number is alarming to me," said U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who chaired the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs' Subcommittee on State, Local, and Private Sector Preparedness and Integration.

The Associated Press reported last year that four applicants for border protection jobs were not hired when polygraph tests and background checks confirmed they were infiltrators from drug trafficking operations.

"Transnational criminal organizations are doing all they can to infiltrate CBP through our hiring initiatives," Tomsheck told the subcommittee.

An AP investigation tallied corruption-related convictions against more than 80 enforcement officials at all levels — federal, state and local — along the southwest border since 2007.

Since 2003, 129 customs officers and Border Patrol agents have been arrested on corruption charges, said Tom Frost, the Department of Homeland Security's assistant inspector general for investigations

Economist: Assets on the other side
Mexico’s drugs gangs are getting ever more clever

Corruption does not have to be widespread to matter. Individual officers have enormous discretion at the ports of entry. They make the call about whether a truck should be waved through the lane or diverted for secondary inspection, often in a matter of seconds and based on nothing more than a quick look and their practised intuition.

Corruption is often blamed on plata o plomo—meaning silver or lead, bribes or threats. Some experts say that the American formulation is more like plata o sexo, or both. Scott Stewart of STRATFOR, a global intelligence company, recalls a case in which an agent was taking bribes from the drugs people to buy gifts for his girlfriend, who was herself a honey trap.

All that said, customs spokesmen admit that the rise is worrying. Many of the agents are new, and the cartels are eyeing them up. The drug-traffickers used to focus on agents who were already in uniform, particularly those with financial difficulties. Now they are becoming more ambitious, and recruiting future agents before they even apply for the job.

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