Transnational Organized Crime, terrorism, and foreign intelligence operations are among the most prolific threats to national security. Despite having different missions, transnational crime and terror groups have grown closer. Criminal and terrorist organizations, as well as foreign intel officers, need to enter the country (access), move around the country (mobility) and legitimize illicit funds (launder money) without detection.
These shared goals, coupled with a robust global law enforcement and counter-terrorism effort, have forced a convergence among the threats seen in their appropriation of each other’s “best practices.”
The convergence of activity can be seen when cartels use car bombs to create fear and terrorists engage in fraud to generate revenue. They also have a reliance on the same middle-men, such as coyotes and corrupt government officials. This mimicking of activity reflects more of a “shared approach rather than a true interaction.”
The manifestation of the threat is contingent upon first gaining access to the country. This pinpoints the border as a critical chokepoint. Considering sensors, barriers and drones make it harder to access the country, it makes sense that the men and women responsible for enforcing border security would become targets for criminal exploitation and corruption. This is why border corruption is the single most relevant domestic threat to national security. Politics should not get in the way of the facts.
Common acts of border corruption include taking bribes in exchange for allowing the passage of drugs or undocumented immigrants (waving a vehicle through a checkpoint), providing armed escort for drug loads, “throwing” investigations, and providing immigration documents or sensitive law enforcement information or radio frequencies.
The government is responsible for securing nearly 7,500 miles along the northern and southern border and 95,000 miles of U.S. shoreline. On a typical day, the 59,000 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees process a million people through one of over 300 Points of Entry (POEs) (which includes approximately 200 international airports) resulting in the seizure of $265,000 in illicit funds, $3.3 million worth of intellectual property rights violations, and 5,800 pounds of narcotics; the identification of 1,607 national security concerns; the arrest of 21 wanted criminals; and the refusal of 592 inadmissible persons. But successful enforcement only drives up the threat of corruption.
A 2016 New York Times article provided a glimpse into the lucrative world of border corruption. In the ten years prior, nearly 200 Department of Homeland Security employees and contractors were paid nearly $15 million in bribes, $11 million of which was paid to CBP officials. They facilitated, among other things, the smuggling into the country of tons of drugs and thousands of undocumented immigrants.
The numbers provided by the Times only painted a fraction of the border corruption picture. First, they did not account for arrests made of non-DHS employees. Second, the bribe payments only reflect an amount documented in court records and do not consider gifts, trips, sexual favors, and payments either not discovered or not reported within charging and/or sentencing documents.
Border corruption extends well beyond CBP to include local, state, and federal law enforcement, correctional officers, judges, prosecutors, Motor Vehicle employees, and military personnel. Essentially, any government official with authority over foreign access to, enforcement around, or movement between, any of the seaports or points of entry; related court proceedings; or the issuance of official documents like Visas, driver’s licenses, and passports.
Corruption is the FBI’s number one criminal priority, and border corruption falls within that domain. The FBI leads nearly two dozen border corruption task forces in partnership with DHS OIG, CBP Internal Affairs, TSA, and others. And in 2017, the FBI reinvigorated its campaign against border corruption by publicly soliciting support from the community to identify corrupt border officials.
Investigations are a long, reactive process that could take many months or years to reach a final conclusion. Each investigation relies on specific criminal allegations of nefarious activity. Proactive measures are in place, but politics often conflict with prudence in matters of border security. Such was the case in the mid-2000s.
In 2006, former Marine Oscar Ortiz Martinez was hired by CBP. A year later, he was fired after a restraining order from his ex-wife turned up in a background investigation. In 2008, amidst a large-scale hiring blitz that resulted in standards being lowered, polygraphs being suspended, and background checks being delayed or not performed, Martinez was rehired by CBP. In 2013, Martinez was sentenced in federal court to 12 years in prison for accepting bribes in exchange for helping to smuggle drugs into the U.S. through his inspection lane at the “Calexico” point of entry.
A U.S. Government Accountability report released in 2012 claimed the “2006-2009 hiring surge drew an unknown number of recruits from the criminal underworld who applied for — and received — jobs as border agents and officers” for the sole purpose of engaging in compromising activity.
In 2017, President Trump ordered CBP to staff 5,000 new agents. By the end of 2017, attrition had left the agency 7,000 below Trump’s target. And once again, politicians are debating whether to suspend polygraphs in order to expedite the long hiring process and meet hiring goals — achieving quantity over quality. Being understaffed with the right people is far better than being fully staffed with even a handful of the wrong people.
Border security requires a holistic approach that focuses on prudent resource utilization to fill deep gaps in physical security and proactively disrupt corruption before it occurs. It only takes one bad agent to wave a dirty bomb through his checkpoint lane and into the country.
Jeff Cortese (@JeffreyCortese) served as acting chief of the FBI’s Public Corruption Unit before becoming financial crimes manager in the private sector. Prior to his 11-year career with the bureau, he worked as a dignitary protection agent with the U.S. Capitol Police and served on the security detail for the Speaker of the House.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.