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In a video message intended for the tens of thousands of men and women working to keep drugs and people from illegally entering the United States, then-Deputy Border Patrol Chief Ron Colburn wanted to leave little doubt about the consequences for those who betrayed their mission.
“The light of justice will ultimately drive you from the shadows,” Colburn said in the 2009 message, one of many produced by the agency to combat corruption in its ranks. “You will find no safe haven among fellow criminals. You will be identified. You will be arrested. You will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The video ended with the sound of a prison door creaking and slamming shut.
But whether most – or even a significant fraction of – corrupt federal border agents really are caught and punished is an open question. In recent years, Customs and Border Protection – the $12 billion law enforcement agency within the Department of Homeland Security in charge of guarding the nation’s borders – has turned to polygraph tests and behavioral research to weed out criminals in its ranks. Background checks now are repeated every five years to make sure agents still pass muster.
But the behemoth agency will reveal little about what those efforts have accomplished. And there is almost no public data to show that its efforts have stemmed the flow of drugs, undocumented immigrants and illegal goods facilitated by the very people whose job it is to keep them out.
Just a few months ago, a report from an outside committee created to advise homeland security officials concluded that the current state of affairs at the agency “leaves CBP vulnerable to a corruption scandal that could potentially threaten the security of our nation.”
“CBP must be proactive in its approach if it is to prevent corruption from taking root,” the Homeland Security Advisory Council wrote in the report, released in March.
The agency declined The Texas Tribune’s request to interview officials about its anticorruption efforts. In statements, Customs and Border Protection has said that it takes corruption allegations seriously and that those engaging in misconduct make up a tiny fraction of its workforce.
Data compiled by agency show that close to 180 of its employees were arrested for, charged with or convicted of corruption charges between October 2004 and October 2015 – less than one-half of a percent of its 44,000 law enforcement officers.
Still, outside observers and some homeland security officials have said the dozens of Customs and Border Protection personnel convicted aren’t a true measure of the extent of corruption.
“The true levels of corruption within CBP are not known,” the Homeland Security Advisory Council wrote last year. “Nor is there an evaluation based on sophisticated risk analysis. This means that pockets of corruption could fester within CBP, potentially for years.”
On paper, it’s not easy to become a Customs and Border Protection officer or a Border Patrol agent. Customs and Border Protection officers work at airports, seaports and official ports of entry; Border Patrol agents work the spaces in between.
The application process includes a background investigation, fitness and drug tests, written tests and oral interviews. Just 1 in 52 applicants makes it through the Border Patrol process, and 1 in 28 through the Customs and Border Protection officer process, according to a December 2011 report. The agency also aims to “reinvestigate” employees every five years, once again looking into their backgrounds and searching for possible signs of corruption, such as “unexplained wealth.”
But the system has its weaknesses, reports and officials have said. And it didn’t help when the agency embarked on a massive hiring surge – prompted by national security laws signed in the wake of 9/11 – that swelled the ranks of Customs and Border Protection officers and Border Patrol agents from 27,000 in 2001 to 43,000 today.
Most of those new hires occurred between 2006 and 2008, and the agency has admitted it may have gone for quantity over quality in some cases.
“No one in the senior leadership of CBP was willing to stand up to the White House and say, ‘We can’t hire this many people safely in this short a period of time,’ ” said Shawn Moran, vice president of the Border Patrol’s main union.
Internal affairs officials later told the Government Accountability Office that five-year reinvestigations fell by the wayside during the hiring push “because resources were focused on meeting mandated hiring goals.” By 2010, Customs and Border Protection was overdue on more than 15,000 five-year checks, the GAO report found.
James F. Tomsheck, former Customs and Border Protection internal affairs chief, warned the agency about lapses in its vetting of agents. Tomsheck also said the private companies contracted to do background investigations – one of the pricier aspects of the hiring process, at $3,200 to $3,600 each – were cutting corners. An email he sent to the agency detailing his concerns with the hiring and vetting process shows that agency was aware of the issues back in 2008.
In an April 2008 memo titled “The ‘Perfect Storm’ for CBP Integrity,” Tomsheck wrote that “inexperienced and unqualified persons” were doing background checks on new hires. “We are operating in totally uncharted waters of personnel screening and security,” he continued. (In response to the memo, Tomsheck told the Tribune, Customs and Border Protection was given an extra 90 days to complete its hiring.)
Since its hiring surge, the agency says it has “reviewed and refined its vetting and selection process to ensure qualified candidates are hired for law enforcement positions.”
The Anti-Border Corruption Act of 2010 beefed up the vetting requirements further, requiring lie detector tests for all applicants and strengthening the mandate on five-year reinvestigations. The agency says there is no longer a backlog of those periodic checks.
The impact of those changes is unclear.
Customs and Border Protection is supposed to provide Congress with regular reports of its progress in complying with the 2010 law. The agency has not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Tribune for those reports.
A staffer for U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who leads the House Homeland Security Committee, declined to provide the reports, saying they are “for official use only.” McCaul’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.
Few dispute that Customs and Border Protection’s hiring and vetting practices have improved. But Tomsheck and others worry most about who was hired between 2006 and 2008 – when the hiring and vetting processes were at their weakest, they say, and when drug cartels and other criminal organizations were recruiting people to apply for jobs and infiltrate the agency.
And major gaps still remain in the vetting process. For instance, background investigators don’t look up an applicant’s criminal record in countries outside the United States, the agency has said.
That may be one reason John Paul Yanez-Camacho, who pleaded guilty to improperly using law enforcement data as a Customs and Border Protection officer in 2009, was hired even though he ran a nightclub owned by a suspected drug trafficker in a Mexican border town, according to public records provided by the agency and news reports.
It’s also likely a reason that the agency didn’t discover that some of its employees had two birth certificates, and therefore questionable U.S. citizenship, until after they had been arrested on corruption charges.
Policing the ranks
Despite facing harsh criticism for its handling of corruption allegations, Customs and Border Protection has garnered a lot of credit for its extensive efforts to root out problems, which have cost $166 million, according to a 2012 report.
Recent reports have commended the agency for its practice of randomly reassigning officers to different stations and inspection lanes to make it harder for smugglers to depend on a corrupt officer at a specific location. The agency also limits its officers’ ability to use cellphones.
Customs and Border Protection also has a Division of Threat Mitigation that studies corruption cases to find patterns and prevent good agents from going bad. And the agency analyzes data on cross-border activity at different locations to see if it can identify red flags indicating corruption before anyone else can.
The agency produces regular reports – some weekly – on these efforts. None of them have been made publicly available. A Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Tribune for the reports in January has gone unanswered.
Tomsheck, who pioneered some of the research programs, said that they are valuable but that drawing conclusions on what causes corruption or how to stop it was difficult.
A November 2015 report on Customs and Border Protection’s complaints and discipline system by an outside consulting group said the agency could do a better job of reporting its findings on misconduct.
“The lack of regular and meaningful reporting contributes to a culture of internal and external mistrust and negatively impacts cooperation and collaboration,” the report said. “By enhancing reporting formats for employees, managers and other stakeholders, the Agency would invite healthy and constructive dialogue.”
Rooting out corruption and misconduct in Customs and Border Protection requires a well-functioning and fully staffed watchdog unit, and critics say that’s the opposite of what the agency has now.
Ever since the sweeping reorganization of national security agencies post-9/11, Customs and Border Protection has lacked enough internal investigators. Today, it has about 200 – fewer than half that of the New York Police Department, even though the police department has 34,500 officers to the federal agency’s 43,000.
The agency plans to hire more. But questions remain about their authority.
For a decade after Customs and Border Protection was created, its investigators were permitted to look into only administrative violations – not criminal ones.
That essentially meant that the agency could not investigate corruption allegations against its own employees. That authority fell to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. (Customs and Border Protection is one of many agencies housed inside the Department of Homeland Security.)
In 2014, Customs and Border Protection’s internal affairs office finally received permission to conduct criminal investigations. But the homeland security inspector general still has the authority to do investigations, too, and turf wars continue between various agencies over who is in charge of investigating corruption among Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers.
An April report from the homeland security inspector general showed at least four different entities investigating misconduct allegations within Customs and Border Protection. (The FBI also takes the lead on investigating corruption at Customs and Border Protection, much to the discontent of some of the other agencies.)
The same report also criticized the agency’s ways of probing misconduct.
“CBP cannot ensure its investigative operations are being carried out in an efficient and cost-effective manner,” the inspector general’s office wrote.
Last year, the Homeland Security Advisory Council urged Customs and Border Protection to hire 350 more internal investigators “at a minimum.” Since then, however, the agency has made plans to add only about 100.
“At this pace … it could take almost a decade to get (internal affairs) to the staffing levels needed,” the council wrote in March. “This leaves CBP vulnerable to a corruption scandal that could potentially threaten the security of our nation.”
The Department of Homeland Security says there’s no data to support that claim. If anything, the department said, there is a “general downward trend” in corruption-related arrests within Customs and Border Protection since a “spike” in 2009.
Indeed, fewer of the agency’s officers have been arrested for corruption in the past couple of years than during the peak time of 2009-10. But Tomsheck interprets that data point differently.
“Corrupt agents and officers within the ranks of CBP are more cautious” than they were before, he said, so they’re not getting arrested.
Tomsheck added, “I believe there are many in the organization who continue to act out in a corrupt way who will remain undetected.”
Reveal reporter Andrew Becker contributed to this story. It is part of The Texas Tribune’s yearlong Bordering on Insecurity project.