Trafficking of drugs and humans is run from inside the US, writes Ceci Connolly in El Paso, Texas.
For years Martha Garnica lived a double life. At the border crossing she was Agent Garnica, a veteran law enforcement officer. In the shadows, she was ''La Estrella'', the star, a brassy looker who helped drug cartels make a mockery of the US border.
Garnica devised secret codes, passed stacks of cash through car windows and sketched out a map for smugglers to safely haul drugs and undocumented workers across the border. For that she was richly rewarded; she lived in a spacious house with a built-in pool, owned two Hummers and spent holidays in Europe.
But late last month her double life ended. A US district judge, David Briones, sentenced her to 20 years' jail after she pleaded guilty to six counts of drug smuggling, human-trafficking and bribery. She was, in the words of prosecutors, a ''valued asset'' of the crime syndicate La Linea in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, directing the movements of at least five men, four of whom are in prison or dead.
''Everybody makes mistakes,'' she said in court, wearing handcuffs and an orange prison jumpsuit. ''I take responsibility for my mistakes.''
For years, until an intricate sting operation brought her down late last year, Garnica embodied the seldom discussed role of the US in the trafficking trade.
Cartels based in Mexico, where there is a long history of corruption, increasingly rely on well-placed operatives such as Garnica to reach their huge customer base in the US. It is an argument often made by Mexican officials - that all the attention paid to corruption in their country has obscured a similar, growing problem on the US side of the border.
The cartels have grown so sophisticated, law enforcement officials say, that they are employing Cold War-era spy tactics to recruit and corrupt US officials.
''In order to stay in business, the drug trafficking organisations have to look at different methods for moving product,'' said Thomas Frost, an assistant inspector-general in the Department of Homeland Security. ''The surest method is by corrupting a border official. The amount of money available to corrupt employees is staggering.''
Garnica's saga - pieced together from hundreds of pages of court evidence, tape-recorded conversations, and interviews with border officials, investigators, undercover agents and members of the judiciary - underscores the enormous challenge facing the US as it tries to curtail the $US25 billion ($26.5 billion) -a-year business of illegal drug trafficking.
Corruption is on the rise in the ranks of US law enforcement working the border, and nowhere is the problem more acute than in the frontline jobs with Garnica's former employer, US Customs and Border Protection, federal investigators say. Garnica's stiff sentence represented a rare victory in the struggle to root out tainted government employees.
Homeland Security statistics suggest the rush to fill thousands of border enforcement jobs has translated into lower hiring standards. Barely 15 per cent of Customs and Border Protection applicants undergo polygraph tests, and of those, 60 per cent were rejected by the agency because they failed the polygraph or were not qualified for the job, said the Democrat senator Mark Pryor, who oversees a Senate subcommittee on homeland security.
The number of Customs and Border Protection corruption investigations opened by the inspector-general climbed from 245 in 2006 to more than 770 this year. Corruption cases at its sister agency, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, rose from 66 to more than 220 over the same period. The vast majority of corruption cases involve illegal trafficking of drugs, guns, weapons and cash across the south-western border.
''We have in our country today a big presence of the Mexican cartels,'' Senator Pryor said. ''With about 50 per cent of the nation's methamphetamine and marijuana coming through Mexico and about 90 per cent of the cocaine, there is a huge financial incentive for cartels to try to corrupt our people.''
A Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Alan Bersin, said the rise in investigations might simply correspond to the rapid growth in personnel.
Corruption of ''customs officials all over the world has been a perennial problem of border inspection and border enforcement'', he said in an interview. ''What we haven't seen is a vast conspiracy in the workforce.
''It would be naive to think a $US1 billion smuggling industry would allow itself to be dependent on one or two corrupt employees, or if you eliminate that corrupt employee that they won't try to corrupt someone else.''
Garnica came to the attention of authorities in 1997 when they seized nearly 45 kilograms of cannabis on the Bridge of the Americas into El Paso. An informant fingered Garnica as part of the conspiracy. The FBI opened a case, but it went nowhere. In March 2005 she came under scrutiny again, but authorities lacked the evidence to charge her.
Four years passed before they got their big break. Early last year a Customs and Border Protection employee contacted Smith's office. Garnica, he said, was overly friendly; he suspected she was trying to lure him into the smuggling business.
The man was the perfect target, right out of the Cold War-era espionage handbook. He was recently divorced, with a child heading to university and a modest government salary. He was struggling to pay his bills.
''It's no different from spy agencies,'' Smith said. ''They look for weaknesses. Sex is a biggie. Alcohol, drug abuse, financial woes.''
The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because officials say his life is in danger, agreed to work undercover. His code name would be Angel.
It began subtly with chatty text messages, then drinks in a bar. Within a few months they were meeting for dinner. Garnica always picked up the tab and Angel always wore a wire, their taped conversations and text messages sent directly to Smith and his team in the inspector-general's office.
''Garnica was becoming his best friend,'' Smith said. ''Good recruiters don't just jump into it. They chip through the wall. That's what she was doing.''
In late September 2009, after four months of secret meetings and text messages, free drinks and small bribes, Garnica decided to test Angel.
She gave Angel a minor task: sign a form claiming the injury she suffered playing volleyball actually occurred at work. He did what he was told.
On the night before Halloween, Garnica summoned Angel. They had been talking for days about a big shipment - two vehicles. The pay-off: several thousand dollars.
Following instructions, Angel let the shipment through. El Paso police then stopped the truck, loaded with more than 70 kilograms of cannabis, and arrested the driver. Two days later a federal grand jury meeting in secret indicted Garnica and her co-conspirators.
Garnica, unaware of the indictments or Angel's role in the sting, prepared to bring across another load. The next shipment was set for the night of November 17. At the last minute investigators told Angel to call it off.
The next day La Estrella was behind bars.
The Washington Post
September 20, 2010
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