Securing the southern border is a top priority for President elect Donald Trump. Just how big, and what form the promised Wall will take remains to be seen. Already, there's an army of federal agents guarding the line between the US and Mexico. Their top priority: keeping terrorists and their weapons out. Full Measure explores the risk of border agents getting corrupted and crossing the line to the dark side.
Customs and Border Protection is the largest federal law enforcement organization in the U.S.
Sixty-thousand employees secure more than 100-thousand miles of borders and coastline, but to criminal drug cartels all that security looks a lot like opportunity.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jeffrey Veltri: We have a number of adversaries south of the border, whether it’s Mexican drug trafficking cartels, as well as alien smuggling organizations, who actively seek to corrupt U.S. government employees to facilitate their criminal enterprises.
Supervisory Special Agent Jeff Veltri is briefing us at the FBI’s Border Corruption Task Force in San Diego, California.
Sharyl: What tactics do they use?
Jeffrey Veltri: They spot and assess individuals who would flirt with women who come through their lanes or potentially have financial distress in their lives, gambling debts, and then they target those vulnerabilities.
Individuals like Michael Taylor, an immigration officer who worked at the largest land port of entry in the world: San Ysidro, California. That’s where a cartel-connected Mexican beauty salon worker came through Officer Taylor’s lane and caught his eye.
Jeffrey Veltri: Ultimately, they exchanged telephone numbers. He began dating. She indicated to him at one point that she wanted to cross a friend or a relative.
Sharyl: An illegal immigrant?
Jeffrey Veltri: An illegal immigrant and she gave him $500 in exchange. From that, what we would call in law enforcement, he got a taste and that was the beginning of his corrupt activities.
Officer Taylor smuggled people and drugs for three years before getting caught, but there was another target in the crosshairs of the Mexican beauty salon Mata Hari.
Jeffrey Veltri: She ended up corrupting yet another Customs and Border Protection officer and that would be Mr. Lorne “Hammer” Jones.
In a decade-long crime spree, Officer Jones helped smuggle in people and 33 tons of marijuana.
One reason the dark side is so tempting is because the pay-off is so big. Border agents and officers make thirty-eight to sixty-nine thousand dollars a year.
Sharyl: What kind of money can the illegal activity bring in for a corrupt agent?
Jeffrey Veltri: They could in theory make more in an evening than they, in their annual salary, would garner.
The FBI now has 22 Border Corruption Task Forces dedicated solely to rooting out dirty officers on the take. They caught Officer Michael Gilliland on surveillance video allegedly carrying a cash payoff in a bag. He plead guilty to letting in hundreds of illegal immigrants for $120,000 in bribes. And there are many more:
Agent Marcos Manzano, Jr. hid illegal immigrants in his family's house. Agent Michael Gonzalez was seen on a police camera loading pot into his vehicle. Officer Margarita Crispin is serving 20 years for taking bribes to let marijuana through, and Officer Martha Garnica is serving 20 years for smuggling. Her lavish home and suspicious behavior raised red flags among colleagues.
Jeffrey Veltri: All these individuals take an oath to protect this country against enemies foreign and domestic. They are violating that oath, and they are violating the trust of the American people.
From 2004-2014, 168 Customs and Border Protection employees were arrested, indicted or prosecuted on corruption charges. Jim Tomsheck believes the actual number of crooked agents is much higher.
Sharyl: How rampant do you think potential corruption is inside Customs and Border Protection?
James Tomsheck: I think it’s possible that 1,500 to 2,000 of them have either historically been involved with corruption or may today be actively involved with corruption.
Tomsheck led the fight to expose unscrupulous officers at Customs and Border Protection, as chief of Internal Affairs.
Sharyl: Were you surprised at how much corruption you saw in that position?
James Tomsheck: Yes.
Part of that, he says, was due to a major recruiting effort that rushed to hire 6,000 new Border Patrol agents over two years.
James Tomsheck: That hiring initiative, that occurred between 2006 and 2008, created opportunities for persons to infiltrate the agency.
Only after all that hiring did Customs and Border Protection (CBP) begin giving lie detector tests to applicants. The results were eye-opening.
James Tomsheck: Most shocking was the discovery that there were persons in the applicant pool who had been directed to apply for positions who actually worked for drug trafficking organizations, either on the U.S. side or Mexican side of the border.
Sharyl: They admitted this in the polygraph test?
James Tomsheck: Yes.
Sharyl: Can we assume that before the polygraphs were instituted, people like that may have slipped under the radar and gotten hired?
James Tomsheck: Let there be no doubt that is exactly the case.
But Tomsheck says his anti-corruption efforts were stymied by then-head of Border Patrol David Aguilar.
James Tomsheck: I was very surprised to hear his response, which was one of anger, not one of appreciation. He was yelling when he said, “This is not what we do. We manage this problem.”
Sharyl: What do you think he meant by “we manage it”?
James Tomsheck: They attempted to manage the problem by hiding the problem and dealing with it within the ranks of the Border Patrol.
Later, in a whistleblower complaint, Tomsheck alleged the Border Patrol’s Aguilar called him and his deputy James Wong into a meeting and gave them a strange order to “redefine corruption.”
James Tomsheck: What we were told to do was redefine corruption in a way that would reduce the actual number of corruption arrests, from what was at that point 80-something to a number that was less than 30. Mr. Aguilar actually took a sheet of paper and wrote a number on it that was 20-something and kept tapping it with his pen as he was explaining how we would go about redefining corruption in a way to reduce the number of corruption arrests.
Sharyl: How would one do that, “redefine corruption”?
James Tomsheck: It couldn’t be done and more importantly, we wouldn’t consider doing it. Mr. Wong and I clearly understood that we were being given an order to cook the books. When we returned to our offices and looked at one another, we both had the same reaction that we had been in a bad scene in a very bad movie.
Tomsheck says when he wouldn’t go along, he got socked with lower job performance scores. He filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint and was eventually moved out of his job.
Sharyl: What do you think is the reason you were removed?
James Tomsheck: The aggressive posture that I and my colleagues had taken with regard to corruption, misconduct and aggressive use of force.
Aguilar, the Border Patrol manager Tomsheck accused, declined our interview request and has since retired. The Border Patrol had no comment.
The vast majority of the men and women who work the border are honest, but the impact of even a few bad apples could be devastating. They could allow in terrorists.
In November of last year, days after terrorist attacks overseas, eight Syrians were caught illegally crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. So were five Pakistanis and a man from Afghanistan with alleged terrorist ties. Over several years, Border Patrol caught nearly 2,000 illegal immigrants from 35 countries designated as states that could harm the U.S. with terrorism.
Jeffrey Veltri: The biggest concern would be somebody with nefarious intentions to harm our nation finding themselves in that pipeline.
Gil Kerlikowske is the current Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
Sharyl: There is a lot of concern among law enforcement. They know that most people who cross the border will not be terrorists, but they don’t even want one to slip through and they feel like it’s hard to get a grip on all that?
CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowski: Well, I think the terrorism issue is, particularly after the attacks in Paris, the continuing war in Syria and the number of people, millions of people that have been displaced, compared to what’s going on in Europe, our issues are significantly fewer or less than that. But is there the potential then for somebody to enter the country or try to enter the country? That’s always a concern to us and we have to be aware of it.
That point is punctuated by Customs and Border Protection Officer Luis Alarid. In surveillance footage, Alarid waves through a white minivan carrying 18 illegal aliens. His cut for that one load: $36,000, close to his annual salary.
A search of his home turned up $175,000 in cash. In an alarming taped confession, Alarid admits helping smuggle in a hundred unknown people.
Luis Alarid: Ain't nobody that I know of that's a bin Laden or something.
FBI Agent: Well, I'm glad to hear that.
Jeffrey Veltri: I think his comment speaks to his woeful indifference.
Sharyl: Do you feel confident that we are, in part because of the FBI’s efforts, about as safe as we can be in trying to minimize that threat of a terrorist coming through?
Jeffrey Veltri: I feel as confident as I’m going to feel about it. You’re never going to stop anyone who is morally bankrupt and has a price for their integrity. If you’re for sale, then the question is what your price is.
Tomsheck retired last year. Customs and Border Protection reversed his negative review and in April, settled his whistleblower case. The agency has now begun polygraphing all new Customs and Border Patrol applicants, but it's not a good sign that the majority are flunking the lie detector tests.