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There are allegations that hundreds of Customs and Border Patrol agents could have been tempted by the glitter of gangster gold.
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MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The story splattered across Mexican newspapers looked painfully familiar — a government official was found guilty of betraying the trust of the public and moonlighting for the drug cartels that have torn this country apart.
But the official who was on Wednesday sentenced to 17 years in prison had not worked for the Mexican government like so many other policemen, pen-pushers or politicians who have taken narco money.
Luis Enrique Ramirez was an agent for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol or CBP.
A judge in Brownsville, Texas, handed Ramirez the sentence after he pleaded guilty to waving dozens of cars laden with cocaine over the bridge from Mexico into the United States over three years.
In total, Ramirez is alleged to have collected $500,000 in narco bribes for his handiwork.
The conviction is part of a U.S. government drive to clean up the CBP amid allegations that hundreds of agents could have been tempted by the glitter of gangster gold.
The revelations have caused strains on both sides of the border amid a drug cartel war that has claimed 40,000 lives here since 2006.
A U.S. Senate subcommittee held a special hearing on the issue last month, in which it was reported that “gangs such as Los Zetas are becoming increasingly involved in systematic corruption to further alien and drug smuggling.”
(Read more: Maras and Zetas — an alliance from hell)
At the hearing, CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin testified that 127 agents have been indicted for crimes including cocaine trafficking and money laundering since 2004.
“We recognize that there are bad apples in the barrel,” Bersin said. “We pride ourselves on being a family. However when one of our own strays into criminality we do not forgive.”
Bersin highlighted the case of agent Martha Garnica who was sentenced to 20 years by a judge in El Paso in August.
Courts documents show that Garnica passed information and maps to help smugglers bring drugs and people over the Rio Grande.
In return, she had two homes, a swimming pool, two Hummers, a Cadillac, a truck and vacationed in Europe.
Besides cash bribes, Mexican gangsters use other methods to flip the agents to the dark side, the Senate hearing was told.
For example, cartels will use women operatives to give agents sexual favors in return for letting drugs through, said Homeland Security Inspector General Charles Edwards.
In Mexico, female cartel operatives have long used sex and seduction to glean information or secure bribes.
(Read more: Mexico's female narcos)
Officials said the rapid rise in the number of CBP employees has made the agency more vulnerable.
Amid calls to defend U.S. borders, the Border Patrol doubled in size between 2004 and 2010 to more than 20,000 agents.
“CBP found its workforce was younger, less experienced and in need of seasoned supervisors,” Bersin said.
In January this year, President Barack Obama signed into law an Anti Border Corruption Act which requires all new agents to pass a polygraph test.
Some 60 percent of new applicants who took the test failed, the subcommittee heard. Many of the agents already employed have still never taken the exam.
The revelations of corruption anger many in Mexico, who feel the country is paying the bloody cost of the United States’ drug habits.
Mexican cartels make an estimated $30 billion every year smuggling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth to American users.
Another scandal involving American agents allowing guns to cross to the border into the hands of drug cartels has also caused a huge stink in Mexico.
In that case, known as “Operation Fast and Furious,” agents from the ATF monitored the smuggling of thousands of firearms with the hope of building a major case.
However, they lost trace of the weapons and several later turned up at murder scenes here.
In the United States, meanwhile, some fear corruption of border agents with drug money weakens the U.S. defenses.
Edwards told the Senate hearing that the drug cartels are also involved in smuggling migrants from some countries that raise concern.
“A corrupt agent may accept a bribe for allowing what appear to be simply undocumented aliens into the U.S. while unwittingly helping terrorists enter the country,” Edwards said. “Likewise, what seems to be drug contraband could be weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical or biological weapons or bomb making material.”
Watch: Ruthless kidnappings on the migrant train