Our partner, The Texas Tribune, is taking a yearlong look at the issues of border security and immigration. This part of the project focuses on U.S. law enforcement corruption, which has undermined efforts to secure the border. Sign up to get story alerts.
Rudy Soliz did it for sex. Sergio Lopez Hernandez blamed depression and financial trouble. Daphiney Caganap allegedly received cash and a “deluxe” hot tub worth $10,000.
The circumstances of their crimes differ, but prosecutors say these defendants have something in common: The corrupt actions they’re accused of weakened the same U.S. borders and ports of entry they were assigned to protect.
They are just three of the dozens of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and Border Patrol agents who have been arrested, charged or convicted of corruption in the past 12 years. A joint investigation by The Texas Tribune and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has identified at least 140 officials who were arrested for or convicted of acts of corruption that allegedly compromised their mission to stop crime and keep the nation secure.
Cases in which officials were found not guilty or had their charges dismissed were not included in the Tribune/Reveal review. Neither were examples of routine theft or graft.
In 134 of the 140 corruption cases, officials either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial. Four have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. The outcome in the two remaining cases is uncertain: In one case, federal authorities would not identify the defendant; in another, they would not provide information on his status.
The cases represent a tiny percentage of the total force of more than 40,000 Customs and Border Protection officers and Border Patrol agents. Agency officials, who declined an interview request, said in an emailed statement that the “overwhelming majority of CBP officers and agents perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe.”
But damning reviews and federal reports suggest corruption is underreported inside the nation’s largest law enforcement agency. At a time when presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is calling for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border – and his erstwhile rivals in the Republican Party say more boots on the ground will solve the nation’s border security woes – the data point to a threat that is impervious to both physical structures and additional officers.
A wall doesn’t help much if you can bribe an officer to get through it, and throwing people at the border won’t secure it if they can be hired to look the other way.
Most of the cases the Tribune/Reveal probe highlighted involved corrupt acts offered in exchange for money — schemes that generally turned the idea of border security on its head.
And while corrupt Customs and Border Protection personnel were found across the country – from San Diego to El Paso, Texas; Miami; and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York – Texas-based officers played a starring role. They made up at least 50 of the cases found by the Tribune and Reveal, more than a third of the total.
In Brownsville, Customs and Border Protection Officer Luis E. Ramirez was ordered to forfeit half a million dollars in bribes for agreeing to smuggle people and cocaine through his inspection lane at the Los Indios port of entry, court records show.
Ramirez spoke with the Tribune from federal prison in Big Spring, where he’s not scheduled for release until 2025. He said his corrupt acts at the agency began when he realized the DJ business he was running on the side could take off with some extra cash.
What started out as favors for friends and family here and there turned into carloads of immigrants and thousands of dollars in bribes. Eventually, it seemed easy to pack those immigrant-filled cars with cocaine.
“I can tell you it was basically greed,” he said. “If my wife wanted a Louis Vuitton, I’d buy her a Louis Vuitton.”
In the majority of cases in the Tribune/Reveal investigation – nearly 100 – Customs and Border Protection personnel smuggled either immigrants or drugs, according to allegations in court documents. Ramirez is one of 15 accused of smuggling both.
He also recruited a second officer to help his smuggling business. Ramirez said he saw Sergio Hernandez at a party one night in Mexico and made him aware of his side job.
Hernandez, who also shared his story with the Tribune, said he was in a deep depression and in debt during that time in his life. His wife divorced him while he was an agent, he said, and he needed to pay for medical bills for his daughter.
“I was so tight for money. I was just making ends meet,” Hernandez said. When he met Ramirez, Hernandez recalled: “He said ‘Sergio, I’ve been doing this illegal stuff for years, and I haven’t gotten caught. … I’ll show you how to do it if you’re ever willing to do it.’”
Both men were born in Mexico and said their background influenced them. Ramirez said he “always tried to be sympathetic” to the people of the country he felt so connected to. He owned a second home and office for his DJ business in Matamoros, Mexico, while working as a Customs and Border Protection officer.
Hernandez, who secured an early release from prison and now is living in Houston, is doing what so many smuggled immigrants do: He’s working in the Texas construction industry and trying to restart his life.
“I knew I was breaking the law, but I felt like these people, somehow, they have the right to come over here and work and provide for their families,” he said.
In the Tribune/Reveal review, most cases of human smuggling involving corrupt officials occurred on international bridges, points of entry or in inspection lanes, not on unprotected rivers or unmanned patches of desert.
For example, authorities said Customs and Border Protection Officer Hector Rodriguez and his accomplices smuggled hundreds of undocumented immigrants through the San Ysidro point of entry near San Diego from 2010 to 2012 – right between massive sections of border wall.
Even letting one load through can mean thousands of dollars in bribes. Rodriguez agreed to forfeit a 2009 Jaguar; 12 luxury watches, including five Rolexes; jewelry; televisions; and computers “that were obtained as a result of his criminal activity,” according to a government press release.
That was nothing compared with what Margarita Crispin, a customs inspector in El Paso, Texas, had to give up after pleading guilty to conspiring to import drugs: $5 million, two El Paso properties and a 2002 GMC Yukon. Authorities say she was involved in a scheme to allow more than 2,200 pounds of marijuana to pass through her inspection lane.
“She seemed to be serving the nation, but she was really working for a band of drug traffickers for a boatload of cash,” reads a 2009 FBI press release on Crispin titled “The Case of the Crooked Border Official.”
The FBI first got a tip alleging illegal activity by Crispin in late 2004. The agency watched her for nearly three years, learning that she recruited others to purchase expensive homes and luxury vehicles in Mexico on her behalf before officials arrested Crispin at her inspection lane in July 2007.
Crispin is one of at least eight Customs and Border Protection officials in the Tribune/Reveal review who were alleged in court documents to have made or been promised at least $1 million for their smuggling activities, sometimes in conjunction with co-conspirators.
On average, the Customs and Border Protection personnel identified in the Tribune/Reveal investigation had nine years under their belt by the time they were arrested. Eleven had 20 or more years of service, 51 had 10 or more years of service and 99 had five or more years of service. Thirty-four had served for fewer than five years.
Rookie Officer Luis Alarid joined the agency in October 2007 and was arrested less than a year later. He admitted receiving more than $200,000 in bribes to smuggle marijuana across the Otay Mesa point of entry in San Diego.
Investigators said veteran Customs and Border Protection Officer Michael Gilliland, who had been with the agency for 16 years when he was arrested, earned enough by waving immigrants into San Diego in a single night to nearly match a year’s salary.
Many case files don’t list drug quantities or bribes taken. But among those that do, the Tribune and Reveal’s research found 100 tons of weed trafficked, 5 tons of cocaine moved and $18 million made or promised as part of the illicit activity for which agents and their accomplices were investigated.
In 20 of the cases identified by the Tribune and Reveal, authorities identified an illicit activity besides smuggling people or dope. Authorities said El Paso-based Border Patrol Agent Ricardo Montalvo and his girlfriend allegedly smuggled weapons, including high-powered pistols and flare guns.
And several cases involved cross-border romantic or sexual relationships.
For Customs and Border Protection Officer Richard Elizalda, it all began with the flirtatious advances of a female smuggler, his lawyer said. Soon, he fell in love, began drinking heavily and even had cosmetic surgery to make himself more attractive to her. Before long, he was accepting bribes – cash, jewelry and even a Lexus – for waving carloads of undocumented immigrants through his lane at the San Ysidro, California, port of entry.
At his sentencing, Elizalda told the judge, “I let my family down, and I let the United States down – the people of the United States – and I’m sorry.”
Customs and Border Protection Officer Desmone Bastian got in trouble on the northern U.S border – one of at least 10 such cases in the Tribune/Reveal review. Authorities say his payoff for allowing a prostitute to cross over from Canada wasn’t money, but sex.
Some risked everything for a romantic partner, such as Arizona-based Border Patrol Agent Pablo Berry, who was charged with harboring his high school sweetheart, who entered the country illegally, in 2005. He later married her.
Family members often got involved in schemes, too, and occasionally were Customs and Border Protection officials themselves.
Raul and Fidel Villarreal, brothers and fellow Border Patrol agents in San Diego, were accused of making upward of $1 million by smuggling more than 1,000 migrants. Cousins Salomon Ruiz and Leonel Morales, both Border Patrol agents in South Texas, were accused of cocaine smuggling, court documents show.
Border Patrol Agent David Cruz was roped into an immigrant smuggling scheme because he and his then-wife needed money to wage a legal battle to regain custody of his wife’s stepson.
Even after that case was resolved, Cruz said in an interview with the Tribune, his wife pushed him to keep smuggling, and it was hard to stop.
“It is a long and very painful process that changes you from a very good agent to somebody that’s doing exactly what you’re trying to avoid happening,” said Cruz, who served more than four years in prison and now lives in Puerto Rico, where he has family. “It’s a slow, painful process.”