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David Cruz was not from the border. He arrived in 2002, a brand-spanking-new U.S. Border Patrol agent sent to Laredo, Texas. The Navy veteran who’d done a stint with an Ohio sheriff’s department believed he’d joined one of the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies.
“I wanted to be part of the best,” he said, and he arrived intent on keeping undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers from crossing the line dividing Texas and Mexico that looked so clean and decisive on a map. But like many before him, Cruz discovered that the nation’s southern border gets fuzzier the closer you get.
“I know geographically it’s very marked where that boundary is, but it’s almost like those (first) 25 miles are 25 miles of gray area,” he recalls.
In that gray world, Cruz betrayed the dream that brought him to Texas. He took bribes, became a felon, fled the country and, ultimately, went to federal prison in 2010.
The details vary, but the general themes of Cruz’s downfall are echoed in many of the cases of Border Patrol agents gone bad. There’s the money, of course, and rationalizations that letting immigrants into the country without authorization – which is what Cruz did – serves a nobler purpose.
But one striking hallmark of border corruption cases is how often the drift into illegal behavior begins with family considerations or entanglements.
For Cruz, it started when he solicited bribes to fund a costly legal battle to get his wife’s son back from his father in Mexico, he said. But once the illicit cash started flowing, he never found the will to turn it off.
Family ties surface in myriad such stories:
- Brothers Raul Villarreal and Fidel Villarreal, both former Border Patrol agents, were convicted in August 2012 of charges stemming from their smuggling of more than 1,000 immigrants into the United States from Mexico in exchange for more than $1 million in bribes. They were sentenced to 35 and 30 years, respectively. Ironically, Raul Villarreal had for years been the face of the Border Patrol in San Diego, appearing as a spokesman for the agency.
- Investigators say Border Patrol Agent Marcos Manzano Jr. harbored his twice-deported father – who had a drug-dealing conviction – and another undocumented immigrant inside his San Diego-area home. When agents from the Border Corruption Task Force raided the house in 2011, they discovered a small underground room accessed by removing a concrete slab from the patio. Manzano pleaded guilty in July 2011 to harboring illegal immigrants and was sentenced to six months in a halfway house and two years of supervision.
- Customs and Border Protection official Daniel Ledezma became involved in drug smuggling in part because his wife and brother-in-law were involved with a drug trafficking organization based in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. According to court documents, Ledezma would tip off his wife, Ana Marie Hernandez, using coded language to let her know he was ready for a cocaine load to pass through an inspection lane. Witnesses told authorities that the couple were involved in smuggling eight large cocaine loads, some through the Bridge of Americas Port of Entry in El Paso, each containing 300 to 500 kilograms of cocaine. Ledezma was sentenced to nine years, two months in prison and ordered to pay $100,000. His wife fled to Mexico while free on bond and was captured there in 2015.
- Wilfredo Maralit used his status as a Los Angeles Customs and Border Protection agent to purchase and ship military-grade weapons and ammunition as part of a series of international weapons sales coordinated by his brothers and him, records show. The criminal complaint filed against the three Maralit brothers showed that Wilfredo Maralit used his training to gain knowledge of federal export law in order to facilitate illegal weapons exports, including at least one .50-caliber rifle, to the Philippines. Maralit pleaded guilty to violating the Arms Export Control Act, according to a Department of Justice press release. He was sentenced to three years in prison and three years of supervised release.
Cruz is 40 now, with three kids and a girlfriend, out of prison and taking classes at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. It’s obvious he still thinks incessantly about what he did. He rattles off his federal inmate number without hesitation: 88736-179. He hopes to write a book, a cautionary tale to warn other Border Patrol agents away from the traps that he said ensnared him.
“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,” he said.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Cruz moved stateside when he enlisted in the Navy at 18 and later pursued his passion for law enforcement at the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio.
He thought the next best step was to become a Border Patrol agent. “Wanting to be the best in everything I did in my life, I wanted to go federal,” Cruz said.
Cruz trained and worked hard at his new job. He said he didn’t join the agency imagining he ever would commit a crime. He struggles now to identify what exactly pushed him over the line.
“There were a lot of things going on, but I think a person who does something like what I did must have the perfect storm in their life at the time they decide to do it,” he said.
It started when he needed some extra cash to help his wife gain custody of her child. “His father had taken him to Mexico and was hiding him from her, and we were in a legal battle to get him back. That legal battle was very costly,” Cruz said. “That was a lot of pressure, when you care for somebody and that person is not happy because of something – naturally, you want to make that person happy.”
But there was more, Cruz concedes. Over time, he’d become less impressed with the agency he once held in such high esteem. Some agents still called immigrants “wets” and treated them harshly, he said.
“I thought I was going into the best of the best and working with the best investigators, the best people, the best agency, and right off the bat, I can’t lie to you, I was very disappointed with what I saw, and that created a conflict,” Cruz said.
Pretty much all agents, he contended, abetted smuggling in some way, if just by deciding not to pursue border crossers when they didn’t want to deal with the ensuing paperwork.
“Every Border Patrol agent allows illegal immigrants into the United States,” he said. “The reasons is what varies – you could do it for money, you could do it to not write a report, you could do it because you’re about to get off at 4 and want to go on a date at 4:30.
“When you apprehend one person, you take the risk of – after everybody going home – you having to stay and process for another two or three hours. It’s easy for a lot of people to say, ‘Well, how do I avoid that? I don’t do my job, period.’ ”
Smuggling immigrants wasn’t a new thing for Cruz, and it’s certainly not uncommon on the Texas border. His wife was a Mexican citizen, and he previously had paid someone to bring in a handful of undocumented workers to help with a construction job. In that case, Cruz didn’t have to lift a finger. The immigrants were brought into the country, and all he had to do was pick them up near his home.
So it wasn’t that far a leap in Cruz’s eyes for him to start taking money to let people into the country illegally. He told himself that he was helping people who were struggling and needed work to provide for their families. Cruz and his wife, Susana Lopez-Portillo de Cruz, worked together on the scheme. He questioned undocumented immigrants after they were apprehended to identify a smuggler who appeared to treat his human cargo humanely, Cruz said.
Cruz approached the smuggler to set up the partnership to help migrants sneak through inland border checkpoints on northbound buses. After the immigrants crossed from Mexico into Laredo, they stayed at a safe house until being placed on a commercial bus.
His wife would relay the bus numbers, locations and times that immigrants were coming to Cruz, who would make sure he was the agent who inspected the bus when it reached the checkpoint. It was stressful, he said.
But the money was good, and even after his family problems were resolved, Cruz and his wife found they liked the flow of cash. They were able to dabble in side businesses, opening a restaurant in Laredo they named the Burger Patrol.
Unknown to Cruz, investigators began secretly monitoring communications among Cruz, his wife and the smugglers in 2007. During three instances of smuggling, special agents were on board the bus recording and videotaping Cruz failing to check passenger IDs appropriately, according to court documents.
“The first person I ever let through, I knew I was going to get caught,” Cruz said. “It wasn’t a matter of if, it was when. I knew I couldn’t fool the agency.”
Cruz was 32 at the time of his arrest in 2008 and pleaded guilty to transporting and harboring illegal aliens for the purpose of financial gain. He and his wife each were sentenced to more than four years in prison.
Cruz was ordered to surrender to the New York Metropolitan Correction Center on Oct. 7, 2008, but instead he fled to Mexico.
Cruz said he felt as though he had to flee the country to continue working and providing for his wife, who was not a U.S. citizen, while she was in prison. He said he can’t say whether fleeing the country — and being labeled one of Laredo’s most wanted fugitives — was worth it, but it helped him understand what people in Mexico were going through.
“When I left, I saw another aspect of these people’s lives that I think I had to see in order to be OK with me doing what I did,” Cruz said.
U.S. marshals located Cruz in Guanajuato almost a year later, and he was arrested and returned to the country by Mexican law enforcement in 2009. He was released from prison in October 2012.
Looking back, Cruz still has trouble unwinding the threads of his crimes. Money, family and anger all seemed to play a part, he said.
Now, Cruz hopes to write a book about his time in the agency. From the moment he was arrested, Cruz said he wanted to tell his supervisors all the reasons that led him to become corrupt.
“I don’t want to send out the wrong message that you could do some of the things I did and perhaps get away with it,” Cruz said.
Although he’s far from the agency that once employed him, Cruz hopes to go back to Laredo one day to speak with officers about his case and prevent others from committing crimes.
“If I can avoid one person from the wrong side of that line, then I want to do it,” he said. “I don’t even know if they’d be willing to give me an audience. It may not happen just yet, but maybe sometime.”
Texas Tribune reporters Jay Root and Neena Satija contributed to this story, which contains material from Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
This story is part of The Texas Tribune’s yearlong Bordering on Insecurity project.