August has been a difficult month for U.S. Customs and Border Protection when it comes to misconduct or corruption within its ranks.
Six agency employees – almost all Border Patrol agents – have been convicted of or indicted on corruption-related charges and other crimes this month. Two more trials of Customs and Border Protection employees, both of whom are accused of helping traffickers smuggle drugs into the country, are scheduled to begin next month.
Overall, more than 140 Customs and Border Protection employees have been indicted or convicted of corruption-related charges since October 2004. Officials have said those numbers are just a fraction of the agency's 58,000 employees.
The flurry of activity follows recent congressional attention on the Department of Homeland Security and misconduct issues, including a House Oversight subcommittee hearing earlier this month on oversight of the department. In prepared testimony, the department’s acting inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, said that complaints against Customs and Border Protection employees have increased 95 percent since fiscal year 2004, and jumped by 25 percent between 2010 and 2011, when 730 investigations were launched.
Drug trafficking organizations "are becoming involved increasingly in systematic corruption of DHS employees to further alien and drug smuggling, including the smuggling of aliens from designated special interest countries likely to export terrorism," he said. "The obvious targets of corruption are front line Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers; less obvious are those employees who can provide access to sensitive law enforcement and intelligence information, allowing the cartels to track investigative activity or vet their members against law enforcement databases."
But even the inspector general's office has come under suspicion as a federal grand jury has probed the watchdog agency and a Texas branch office based on allegations that agents were instructed to fabricate investigative activity in reports ahead of an internal inspection last fall.
The latest criminal convictions of Customs and Border Protection employees range from drug trafficking and bribery offenses to lying about firearm purchases. The most high-profile case involves the retired president of the Border Patrol's national union, who was indicted on charges of wire fraud.
In the latest conviction, Border Patrol Agent Ricardo Montalvo pleaded guilty Friday in U.S. District Court in El Paso, Texas, to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. He was arrested in April on 20 counts of conspiracy, firearms and smuggling charges, but all other charges were dropped. Joseph Sib Abraham Jr., Montalvo's attorney, said his client was interested in guns but was not involved in smuggling weapons. Sentencing is scheduled for November.
Abel Canales, a former Border Patrol agent stationed in Arizona, pleaded guilty Aug. 20 to one count of bribery. A federal grand jury indicted Canales last October, three years after he took an $8,000 bribe to allow a U-Haul he thought was loaded with drugs to pass through a traffic checkpoint on Interstate 19 south of Tucson. In a plea agreement filed last week, Canales admitted to accepting a bribe.
Canales’ attorney, Sean Chapman, said that Canales succumbed to the temptation of easy money and will now pay the price – the plea agreement calls for a sentence of eight to 14 months. A federal judge is scheduled to sentence him Oct. 29.
“In Arizona and Texas there is a huge amount of vice, corruption and money,” Chapman said. “Abel Canales is a young man who made a mistake. The temptation is ever present in Tucson and areas south.”
Also on Aug. 20, a federal grand jury in Brownsville, Texas, convicted Customs and Border Protection Officer Manuel Eduardo Pena, 38, of making a false statement and lying to a federal agent after he falsely claimed he bought firearms for himself that were actually intended for another person, a so-called “straw purchase.” A 12-year veteran, Pena was arrested May 24 and is scheduled to be sentenced in November.
Earlier this month, Raul and Fidel Villarreal, two brothers who had been Border Patrol agents before they abruptly quit their posts in June 2006, were convicted by a federal jury in San Diego of human smuggling, bribery and money laundering. The brothers’ sentencing hearing is scheduled for November.
Terence “T.J.” Bonner, the former president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents 17,000 Border Patrol agents, was indicted Aug. 16 in San Diego by a federal grand jury on wire fraud charges.
According to the indictment, Bonner allegedly used union funds to buy dozens of computer hard drives to store a large cache of pornography and fraudulently received reimbursement for personal travel, including trips to Chicago to visit his mistress and family members and to attend sporting events. A search warrant affidavit unsealed last week estimates that Bonner defrauded the union of more than $200,000.
In interviews, Bonner has adamantly denied the charges, and last week entered a plea of not guilty. He is free on bond.