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Jul 9, 2016

Bordering on insecurity

Co-produced with PRX Logo

One border official did it for sex. Another blamed depression and financial trouble. Yet another allegedly received cash and a “deluxe” hot tub worth $10,000.

The circumstances of their crimes differ, but prosecutors say these defendants have something in common: The corrupt actions they’re accused of weakened the same U.S. borders and ports of entry they were assigned to protect.

On this episode of Reveal, our joint investigation with The Texas Tribune profiles federal border officials who were arrested for or convicted of acts of corruption that allegedly compromised their mission to stop crime and keep their country secure.

DIG DEEPER

  • Read: A Texas beheading, a Mexican cartel and the border agent facing charges
  • Examine: Corruption at the border: Sex, drugs and rolling through inspection
  • More: From The Texas Tribune’s yearlong look at the issues of border security and immigration

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Com Truise, “Polyhurt” from “Fairlight” (Ghostly International)
  • Samurau, “go ahead” from “Things left unsaid” (La bèl netlabel)
  • Samurau, “things left unsaid” from “Things left unsaid” (La bèl netlabel)
  • Samurau, “go ahead” from “Things left unsaid” (La bèl netlabel)
  • Samurau, “freezing frog/strange blues” from “Things left unsaid” (La bèl netlabel)
  • Samurau, “things left unsaid” from “Things left unsaid” (La bèl netlabel)
  • XP-43, “DOUX (Tape Safe)” from “Netlabel Day 2016 Promo Compilation #2” (Netlabel Day)
  • Vir Nocturna, “Lux” from “Lux - Single”
  • Coolzey, “Darker” from “Dark Mantras” (Public School Records)
  • “Black Water”
  • The Insider, “Right” from “All's Fair in Love of Wax” (Cheshire Records)
  • Samurau, “goteburg's light” from “Things left unsaid” (La bèl netlabel)
  • Lirik Dog, “Para Mario "POPO" Peña C.D.G.”
  • Peripheral Living, “Ceiling Fan” from “Experimental Lakes” (Power Moves)
  • Calexico, “Two Silver Trees” from “Live in Nuremburg 2009” (self-released)
  • Samurau, “goteborg's light” from “Things left unsaid” (La bèl netlabel)
  • John Fahey, “Sunflower River Blues” from “Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes” (Takoma)
  • Kate Simko, “Welcome to Farmilab” from “Music from The Atom Smashers” (Ghostly International)
  • Ezekiel Honig, “Between Bridges” from “Folding In On Itself” (Type Records)
  • Kate Simko, “Quiet Daydram (Intro)” from “Music from The Atom Smashers” (Ghostly International)
  • KILN, “Templefrog” from “Dusker” (Ghostly International)

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:05] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Al Letson:

From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. What makes a good cop go bad?

David Cruz:

It's a slow painful process, but it is a process.

Al Letson:

That's David Cruz. He was a Border Patrol agent in Laredo, Texas from 2001 to 2007. What was your dream? Did you always want to become a Boarder Patrol agent?

David Cruz:

I always wanted to do law enforcement. It all began when I was in the Navy.

Al Letson:

After a 4-year stint in the Navy, he got a job with a Sheriff's Department in Ohio. He worked at a halfway-house at a jail until finally ...

David Cruz:

I ended up at the Border Patrol Academy.

Al Letson:

From the start, David felt uneasy with the Border Patrol.

David Cruz:

From the time that you go to the Academy, you learn that it's not really a migrant but a wetback. How many wets did you get? How many wets did you caught? Did you catch them, you clean them. It's constantly being talked about not like a human being, perhaps it's a fish. If you catch them, you clean them.

Al Letson:

He got pass his initial discomfort and became an agent. Can you kind of walk me through your day-to-day as a Border Patrol agent? You get up and you go to work. What's the average day like?

David Cruz:

There isn't really an average day. One day you might be following some footprints out in the desert. Another day you might be inspecting some vehicles in the checkpoint. You may be assigned to a canine unit or different things.

Al Letson:

How did you end up getting into the trouble that you did?

David Cruz:

I'd like to make something clear. It's that every agent has smuggled illegal aliens. Perhaps you were just a lazy agent, and you let them through just because you don't like to process the paperwork. When you apprehend 1 person, you take the risk of after everybody is going home, you having to stay and process for another 2 or 3 hours. It's easy for a lot of people to say, "Well, how do I avoid that? I just let them through. I don't do my job."

Al Letson:

We can't verify David's statement, but we can say the morale at the agency was really low. Other former agents told us the same thing, and the Border Patrol Unit has talked it publicly. No matter how low the morale was, or how much David may have disliked his job, it didn't cause him to break the law. That was something else entirely. Cash.

David Cruz:

I was married at the time, and there was a dispute with my wife's son at the time. His father had taken him to Mexico, and we were in a legal battle to get him back. That legal battle was very costly. That was the beginning of it. I said, "Okay, we need to get him back. I'll do what I need to do to get him back." You just going to go along, and that's pretty much how it was.

Al Letson:

How did you meet the coyote that brought these people in? Is that how it worked?

David Cruz:

I wanted to make sure that the person that I was going to be involved with had to be somebody that would not mistreat the people, and that the people wouldn't talk about them. Of course I didn't want to get caught.

Al Letson:

You basically went out searching for somebody.

David Cruz:

I contacted [crosstalk 00:03:38]. Right.

Al Letson:

Nobody propositioned you. You went out looking for it.

David Cruz:

No. It was the other way around. Right. I was the one that propositioned. After many interviews with many aliens that I was catching, I found enough information about somebody that was treating them well. Somebody that would fit that description. Somebody that I could work with and know that wasn't abusing the people.

Al Letson:

How did you get people through?

David Cruz:

The person I contacted would take care of helping them cross the river. They were placed in a safe house where they were fed, and they were taken care of until the time was right to take them to a bus station, get them a bus ticket.

Al Letson:

The undocumented immigrants would get on a bus, and David's wife would call him.

David Cruz:

With the information about the bus, the number, the time where they were going, and how many people were in there that I was supposed to let through. I was at the checkpoint, and I needed to make sure that I was the one that would get up in that bus and do the inspection and wave those people through.

Al Letson:

Do you have any idea how many times you did that? I mean, it just sounds so tense.

David Cruz:

I don't know. I don't know how many times I did it.

Al Letson:

Would it be safe to say it was in the double digits?

David Cruz:

I would say that I pled guilty to an information that says that it was 25 people that I helped come into the United States illegally.

Al Letson:

What was that shift like in your mind to go from trying to be a good officer into seeing this as a way to make money? Did you know other agents that were doing the same thing that you did?

David Cruz:

No. I had never met anybody that was making money doing this. No. It is a long and very painful process that changes you from a very good agent to somebody that's doing exactly what you're trying to avoid happening.

Al Letson:

There were other agents who were smuggling people across the border for money. Through a Freedom of Information request to Customs and Border Protection, we found more than 130 cases of corrupt CBP officials in the past dozen years. That long painful process David is talking about, some people call it the 7-year itch. It's about the time many good agents turn bad and do things like smuggle people across the border for cash. David made enough money to pay for the custody battle, but instead of walking away from his smuggling business, he kept going.

David Cruz:

It shifted. You see, now we're accustomed to a different lifestyle. We were spending a lot of money. We weren't even the same people that started doing it.

Al Letson:

How much money were you making?

David Cruz:

Well, I don't know if I should get into that. It was ...

Al Letson:

It was a significant amount of money that you saw.

David Cruz:

It was a significant amount of money, yes.

Al Letson:

You saw a change in your lifestyle. Whereas you might have been going to Olive Garden, now you're going to a 4-star restaurant. Right? Like that type of thing?

David Cruz:

Yes. There was as big change in lifestyle.

Al Letson:

We tried to find out how much money, but our search of court records didn't answer that question. David says it wasn't just the money that kept him in the game. It was fear.

David Cruz:

Let's not forget that I'm making money, but I'm also making money for other people. Now I had the problem of going to those people saying, "I don't want to do this any more." It's not that simple. Where you're working with certain people, you just don't go and say, "Get ready not to make the money that you're getting used to making with me because it's not going to happen any more." That's a whole set of troubles that I had to deal with.

Al Letson:

About 6 years into the job, David starts to feel like his bosses are onto him. Passwords stop getting him into certain systems, co-workers act differently around him, and then one day he's working at an immigration checkpoint. His wife call him, letting him know that a bus is coming through with some undocumented immigrants. When it arrives, he waves them through, but then he notices something. One of his fellow border agents is on that bus.

David Cruz:

I called my wife at the time, and I said, "This is it." There's no ifs or buts. This I know was an agent, and I know witnessed me allowing through some people on this bus. You can mark this day that this is when we got caught.

Al Letson:

That incident spooked David. Enough that he decided to resign. It was September of 2007. A few months later, Immigration and Customs agents arrested him and his wife. He made bail and decided to flee to Mexico where he became a fugitive. He knew he would eventually get caught. That made him think a lot about those undocumented immigrants.

David Cruz:

Having to change my identity, having to go through a lot of hoops, I ended up exactly where these people came from. I lived what most of the people I allowed through had lived before they came through. I'm not saying that allowing these people through was a good thing. I'm saying that for me personally to be put in that position and live the way they lived and have that hardship was incredibly ...

Al Letson:

Humbling.

David Cruz:

Yes. It allowed me to grow so much.

Al Letson:

David was eventually captured in Mexico. He pleaded guilty to smuggling people across the border in exchange for cash and spent more than 4 year in prison. His wife also served about 4 years for the same charges. In the years since his release from prison, he studied for a degree at a university in Puerto Rico where he has family. He wishes he could talk to Border Patrol agents today to stop those who are thinking of doing something wrong. Do you think adding more Border agents would just make the problem worse?

David Cruz:

I think it will because in order to ... It's almost like an Army. When you send that Army down there to the border, the southern border especially to work, you have to give them that pep talk. "Go gets those wets. Go get those people that are making your great America bad." You're sending an Army with a lot rage, with a lot of negativity, with a lot of disrespect in their mind. This is the problem.

Al Letson:

Corruption in Customs and Border Protection is a huge problem. Reports commissioned by the agency found we have no idea how big the problem is. We're not just talking about agents working at checkpoints on the border, but across the county agents who let people and illegal drugs in. These agents in some cases made millions of dollars working for violent drug cartels. Now, we've seen lives cut short and families disrupted by the drug wars in Mexico, but last year prosecutes say the carnage washed up on US shores.

 

It's March 2015 in the tropical bays of south Texas. It's a crime that's become common across the border, but this murder mystery begins in a Texas border town and eventually leads to a Border Patrol agent. Neena Satija and Jay Root of our partner at The Texas Tribune have our story.

Neena Satija:

The Border Patrol agent in question, Joel Luna. He was arrested in November of 2015. Like many agents accused of corruption, he had a distinguished record of military service. He had been with the Border Patrol for 6 years. His arrest sent shock waves through the agency. Recently, my colleague, Jay, went on a ride along with another Border Patrol agent, one who by a stroke of luck, happen to know Joel.

Speaker 4:

Yeah. You know what? Regarding that, that guy, Joel Luna, he actually was my partner around here for a while for a while. I worked with him.

Jay Root:

You knew him?

Speaker 4:

Yeah.

Jay Root:

Did you really?

Speaker 4:

Yeah. I worked with him for a while. We'd go for walks. He was there with me all the time. You know, again. "Hey, [inaudible 00:12:22], let's go for a walk." We'd go for a walk. Never suspected anything from him.

Jay Root:

You never had any ... Nothing.

Speaker 4:

Any suspicion? No.

Jay Root:

Wow. What was he like?

Speaker 4:

He was a cool person. We got along fine. Never had any issues with him. Like I said, it was just ... When I heard he was Joel Luna, like no, not Joel Luna.

Jay Root:

Before we get back to Joel though, we want to take you back to the beginning. Back to the story that would lead to a Border Patrol agent being charged with capital murder and drug trafficking. In this case, the beginning happens to be ...

Neena Satija:

Spring break 2015 on South Padre Island on the southern tip of Texas, just miles from the Mexican border. Every year 10s of thousands of students about to graduate from college show up here for a good time. I'm talking drinks, dancing, life music, but accidents happen too. People get drunk, fall in the water, and sometimes they drown. Last year though, no one expected this.

Speaker 6:

A nude and decapitated body was pulled from the waters off South Padre Island Monday night.

Neena Satija:

The guy who found the body was boating with his 2 daughters just off the island. At first, he thought it was a crab trap. As he got closer, it looked like something else.

Jay Root:

He called 911. The response came from officers under Cameron County Sheriff, Omar Lucio.

Omar Lucio:

Okay, they say decapitated, but it really was a headless body. At the beginning, like everything else, we didn't have anything to go with.

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:05]

Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:05] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Sheriff Lucio:

At the beginning, you know like everything else, where you didn't have anything to go with.

Speaker 4:

It was the body's fingerprints that helped authorities identify him.

Sheriff Lucio:

And the victim was identified as Jose Francisco Palacios Paz.

Speaker 4:

Franky Palacios, as he was sometimes known, was an undocumented immigrant from Honduras. His long-time, on-and-off girlfriend Martha has reported him missing days earlier. They found his body just days after what would have been his 22rd birthday, March 16th, 2015.

Sheriff Lucio:

Well, it's very unusual. Really, it doesn't happen. It doesn't happen that often. At least, I've been in law enforcement for a long time, and that doesn't happen that I can recall. In the beginning, it was perhaps believed that he had might have been somebody who drowned, perhaps a big barge or a big boat or what have you might have cut him up with the propeller.

Neena Satija:

That was the sheriff's initial hope, as much as you can hope for anything when you find a headless body. Maybe it was just a horrible accident? Maybe there wasn't a killer out there?

Speaker 4:

But there was a long vertical cut on Franky's body form the neck down. He had other wounds too, classic signs, Sherrif Lucio said, of a drug cartel hit.

Sheriff Lucio:

Whoever loses a load or loses the money or whatever the case may be, well, they take revenge that way. We feel that yes, there was something that was related to the cartel. There was no question about it, especially the type of execution.

Neena Satija:

It was hard for Sheriff Lucio not to think of this as spillover violence, with all the bloddy drug wars in Mexico.

Sheriff Lucio:

Our investigators had found out that it happened here, and it had probably happened right there, at a tire shop.

Speaker 4:

That's Veteran's Tire Shop. Franky had worked there for years. We went by the shop a couple of months ago. It's a small brick building painted bright yellow, tires were stacked inside form floor to ceiling. The doors were wide open with huge fans blowing. No one was there when we walk right in.

Jay Root:

Buenos tardes.

Neena Satija:

Investigators think Franky was doing more than fixing and selling tires. They think he and some of his coworkers were involved in the Gulf Cartel that's based just across the border in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

Jay Root:

Buenos tardes. Hola.

Speaker 4:

There's a tiny office inside the tire shop more like a big closet. Inside, there's a small twin bed and a TV which was on.

 

Franky often spent the night in this little room. This is where investigators believe he died. March 10th, 2015.

Neena Satija:

Soon after they found Franky's body, Sheriff Lucio says his team sprayed the walls with something called Blue Star blood-finding agent.

Sheriff Lucio:

It was a special type of lighting that you can use, and it shows whether, even though it's been cleaned and what have you, will eventually show that at one time or another, there was some blood there.

Neena Satija:

It turned out the blood belonged to Franky Palacios. The blood stains were on almost every wall in that little office.

 

By this point, investigators had zeroed in on Franky's coworkers at the tire shop, especially on Eduardo Luna and Fernando Luna, two brothers.

Speaker 4:

You might recognize that last name, Luna. There aren't just two brothers. There's a third, the border control agent Joel, but nobody knew about him yet. For now, the focus was on Eduardo and Fernando.

 

Investigators found suspicious text messages on Eduardo's phone. Fernando sent them to him the day before Franky died.

 

The messages said: "This Franky is a bleepin' traitor, and at any moment, he's going to snitch on you."

Neena Satija:

The night of Franky's death, records show Eduardo Luna's cell phone was on the move. He appeared to be driving to South Padre Island, near where Franky's body would later be found. Gustavo Garza is the lead prosecutor in the case.

Gustavo Garza:

Franky, the victim, was going to identify the Luna brothers as selling drugs, and we believe that's what led to his demise and to his beheading.

Neena Satija:

Another thing: there were some curious pictures on Eduardo's phone, like one of a pistol decorated in gold and engraved with "Pajaro," Spanish for bird.

 

That name Pajaro would become very important later. For now though, it was a mystery.

Speaker 4:

On June 24th, authorities found Eduardo at Veteran's Tire Shop and arrested him. As for his brother, Fernando ...

Gustavo Garza:

Fernando was not arrested at the tire shop on the 24th. Later that night, lo and behold, this vehicle is driving across from Mexico into the US, and Fernando Luna's it.

Speaker 4:

They found him driving across the border on the same day they found his brother Eduardo, and arrested him too. That was the first stroke of luck for authorities. Then there was a second, something nobody saw coming.

 

Fernando wasn't the only one in the car.

Gustavo Garza:

It happened that his brother Joel was with him, who was a Border Patrol agent at the time.

Speaker 4:

This is when investigators first connected Joel Luna to his two brothers, who were already under suspicion.

Neena Satija:

That raised some pretty obvious questions: Who the heck is Joel Luna? What's his involvement in this case? And what is a Border Patrol agent doing driving a murder suspect from Mexico into the United States?

Al Letson:

Coming up after the break, we talk with Joel Luna's Lawyer.

Carlos Garcia:

Circumstantially, you look at that and you go, "This, at the minimum, does not look good." I agree that when you look at when it's presented that way, it gives one pause.

Al Letson:

That's up next. You're listening to Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Today's show is all about good cops gone bad. To be more specific, federal law enforcement protecting our borders. Neena Satija and Jay Root are investigate reporters at our partner The Texas Tribune. They've been looking into the case of Border Patrol agent Joel Luna, who's been accused of murder and drug trafficking along with his two brothers Eduardo and Fernando Luna. All three brothers are suspected members of the Gulf Cartel. They've all pleaded not guilty. There've been no trials yet, but a lot of evidence is coming to light. For one thing, investigators found curious pictures on Eduardo's phone. They were pictures of a gun engraved in gold with the Spanish word for bird, pajaro. They didn't know the significance of it at first, but it would become important later. Through public documents, interviews, and information from sources close to the investigation, Neena and Jay piece together what may have happened. Here they are with the rest of our story.

Jay Root:

Here's what we know about Joel Luna. He's 31 years old, of Mexican heritage, an Army veteran who's served in Iraq, and most recently, an agent for the Border Patrol.

Carlos Garcia:

Joel is a patriot.

Jay Root:

That's Carlos Garcia, Joel's lawyer.

Carlos Garcia:

Anyone that you speak to that knew Joel growing up, that knows Joel as an adult, that knew Joel in the military or knew Joel when we worked Border Patrol, have nothing but good things to say about him.

Jay Root:

Joel's lawyer said, "Sure, his brothers may have exchanged text messages the day before a murder, calling the victim a traitor and a snitch ..."

Carlos Garcia:

But yet they have no text messages that tie my client to any criminal act.

Jay Root:

The Luna brothers' parents are from the border town of Reynosa, Mexico. Their mom's a housewife. Their dad, who died in 2011, was a cook.

 

Joel spent his childhood in Reynosa, along with his brothers, but he was born across the border in Texas, and he went to high school there. Family members told us his mother hoped to get American residency that way. Ultimately, she did.

Neena Satija:

After high school, Joel joined the army in 2004. He was still years away from becoming a Border Patrol agent. But around that time, something was happening in Washington that would affect his future career. Congress and the president made sweeping changes to homeland security laws.

Speaker 9:

Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

George W. Bush:

Thank you all, please be seated. Good morning. In a few minutes, I will sign into law the most dramatic reform of our nation's intelligence capabilities since President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947.

Neena Satija:

President George W. Bush is about to sign the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

George W. Bush:

America in this new century, again, faces new threats. We face stateless networks. We face killers that hide in our own cities. To inflict great harm on our country, America's enemies need to be only right once. Our intelligence and law enforcement are professionals and our government must be right every single time.

Neena Satija:

Along with changing defense policy abroad, the law called for doubling the Border Patrol. When the president signed it, there were about 10,500 Border Patrol agents. Today, there are more than 21,000.

 

Now, adding all those agents quickly had some unintended consequences. First off, the agency didn't have enough internal investigators to keep an eye on potential misconduct. And when it hired all those new people, they didn't always get thorough background investigations.

 

We don't know if corruption in the agency got worse after the hiring surge, because it only started keeping good data in 2004. But corruption was seen as a growing problem, enough that it became the focus of congressional hearings in 2011. Here's Alan Bersin speaking at one hearing. He was Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.

Alan Bersin:

Since 2004 in October, 127 CBP personnel have been arrested, charged, or convicted of corruption. We take each and every one of them seriously.

Neena Satija:

The agents had been accused of illegally letting drugs, people, or weapons into the United States. Today, more than 170 have been accused of these crimes. Here's Homeland Security official Charles Edwards, from that same hearing.

Charles Edwards:

The cartels, the drug business, organized criminal enterprises, they are becoming very sophisticated. They are trying to infiltrate our CBP, our workforce. We have to get to the root of the problem. If we just go ahead and get rid of that one employee, we still haven't gotten to the bottom of the problem.

Neena Satija:

Customs and Border Protection declined our request for an interview, but I did speak to James Tomsheck, who headed Internal Affairs from 2006 to 2014. He said standards for becoming a Border Patrol agent became so low during the hiring surge that drug cartels had their own members apply for Border Patrol jobs.

 

Did the Gulf Cartel name ever come up?

James Tomsheck:

It did frequently.

Neena Satija:

So folks would be told by the Gulf Cartel to apply to become a Border Patrol Agent?

James Tomsheck:

Yes, and organization within the Gulf Cartel, aligned with the Gulf Cartel, would recruit persons from within their ranks solely for the purpose of advancing ongoing criminal activity.

Jay Root:

Prosecutors say, and may have to prove in court, that Joel Luna and his two brothers were involved in the Gulf Cartel.

 

We asked James Tomsheck if he had been surprised to hear about that case.

James Tomsheck:

No. I can't say that it surprises me or shocks me. It is unfortunate that events like that, beyond unfortunate that events like that unfold, but I have come to believe that it is something that should be anticipated.

Neena Satija:

So, we don't know how or when the Gulf Cartel allegedly became a part of Joel Luna's life, but in March of 2013, four years on the job, he sent an urgent memo to his supervisors. Joel told them his family in Mexico had been threatened, and they could be hurt if he didn't help the Gulf Cartel.

 

Customs and Border Protection wouldn't release the message to us, and they wouldn't tell us what, if anything, they did in response.

Jay Root:

But we know Joel sent that message in March of 2013, and we also know that in that same month, Joel's brother Eduardo may have been caught up in Gulf Cartel violence.

 

After Eduardo was arrested for Franky's murder, court documents say a woman called investigators out of the blue. She said she knew Eduardo as a Gulf Cartel commandante, or commander, and she'd said he killed her brother, Mario Peña, the

Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:05]

Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 - 00:50:53] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Jay Root:

... commander, and she said he'd killed her brother Mario Peña, the guy who this music video is about.

Male:

(singing).

Jay Root:

Mario Peña was a Gulf Cartel commander too, and the video, which mourns his death, claims he was betrayed by a colleague. Shot in the back. The woman who called investigators claimed Eduardo Luna did that, the brother of Border Patrol agent Joel Luna. We can't verify these claims. Many news reports say Mario Peña was killed during Gulf Cartel violence in March of 2013, but there's no proof Eduardo Luna did it. His lawyer didn't respond to multiple emails and phone messages.

Neena Satija:

... but the woman offered an important detail, a Gulf Cartel name she knew Eduardo went by, "Pájaro." Remember, that's Spanish for bird, the same word engraved on the gun found in pictures on Eduardo's phone. Other elements line up too. Family members told us that in early 2013 Joel's brothers received a threat while having a party in Reynosa. They fled to Texas, where all 3 Luna brothers, Joel, Eduardo, and Fernando, were reunited. Family members showed us a video of a cousin's birthday party. Joel and Fernando were both there. Joel's hugging his wife tightly, baby son in one arm. He loves to dance and socialize, his family told us, and they just couldn't believe he's in jail now.

Speaker 4:

[Spanish 00:29:39]. That's Joel.

Female:

... and he's been like that all the time ...

Speaker 4:

Yeah, yeah.

Female:

I mean just little.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, little, since I've known him, he's always been like that.

Female:

Not only him, but Fernando too.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, the whole family. Your whole family. Your whole family was back there.

Female:

We have a big family.

Speaker 4:

Yeah.

Jay Root:

That party was in October of 2014, just months before the headless body of Franky Palacios was found near South Padre Island. Again, all 3 Luna brothers have pleaded "not guilty" to all charges. Fernando and Eduardo's lawyers didn't respond to repeated phone calls. Joel's lawyer, Carlos Garcia, says his client is innocent.

Carlos Garcia:

I represent Mr. Luna, Joel Luna. What his brothers may have been involved in, or did or didn't do, have nothing to do with his behavior or what he's accused of in this case. He's not, he has not, and did not commit a criminal act.

Jay Root:

There is one glaring detail I should mention, though: A family member pointed investigators to a black safe at Joel's mother-in-law's house. Here's Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio:

Omar Lucio:

... and inside of that safe there was located over a kilogram of cocaine, 17 grams of methamphetamine, and one 1911-style engraved pistol. I think that pistol was engraved with the name of an individual, and it was, it's a beautiful pistol.

Jay Root:

That name engraved on the pistol? "Pájaro." Finally, investigators had found the gun they'd seen pictured on Eduardo Luna's phone, with the same nickname they'd heard belonged to a Gulf Cartel "commandante."

Neena Satija:

By the way, the other side of the gun said "cártel del Golfo," Spanish for Gulf Cartel. There was more in that safe: $89,000 in cash, bundled in rubber bands.

Omar Lucio:

The officer also located a United States Border Patrol badge, and several documents identifying Joel Luna.

Neena Satija:

... so, not only did they find drugs and a pistol with the name "Pájaro," they found one of Joel's Border Patrol badges. Jay asked his lawyer about this.

Carlos Garcia:

One of his brothers in particular, Eduardo Luna, has been identified in these court documents as a sort of figure, a "commandante" in the Gulf Cartel, named "El Pájaro," and as it turned out, "El Pájaro" is the name that's engraved on this gold-plated pistol, that has CDG, cártel del Golfo, the Gulf Cartel written on it; and that was found in this safe, and now they're tying the safe to Joel Luna, because it was his safe and his Border Patrol badge was in there; so circumstantially, you look at that, and you go, "This," I mean, at the minimum, "doesn't look good." I agree that when you look at ... When it's presented that way, it gives one pause to think about, well, what are those ... Those two things don't go together. This cartel pistol with the bad guy's name on it shouldn't be with the badge of a border patrolman.

Neena Satija:

"Still," Carlos Garcia says, "That doesn't implicate Joel Luna."

Carlos Garcia:

The safe was not found and has never, was never found, it wasn't found in my client's possession.

Jay Root:

That's true. It was found at his mother-in-law's house. Both Joel's mother-in-law and other family members told authorities the safe belonged to Joel. His lawyer disputes that.

Carlos Garcia:

There is no evidence but for a statement that the government relies on, to tie him to that, to that safe.

Jay Root:

As soon as soon as investigators found that safe, they arrested Joel Luna and indicted him, like his brothers, for the capital murder of Franky Palacios and for drug trafficking. Joel was arrested at the checkpoint where he worked in Hebbronville, Texas. We don't know which of the town's several checkpoints was the site of his arrest, but we drove through a couple.

Male:

Hello, there.

Neena Satija:

Hi.

Jay Root:

Hi.

Male:

Hi, how's it going?

Neena Satija:

Good, how are you guys?

Male:

Hey, good.

Male:

All right.

Male:

Just the two of you today?

Male:

Okay.

Neena Satija:

Just the two of us.

Jay Root:

Yeah, we're reporters from The Texas Tribune, we're doing a story about Joel Luna, who used to work here.

Male:

I'm sorry, doing a what?

Jay Root:

A story about Joel Luna.

Male:

Oh, okay.

Jay Root:

He used to work here ...

Male:

I [understand 00:34:22].

Jay Root:

What was it like to work with him?

Male:

Sorry, sir, I can't really comment.

Neena Satija:

Okay.

Jay Root:

Okay. Thank you.

Neena Satija:

Is this the station where he worked, where we are here?

Male:

This is one of the checkpoints, ma'am, but this is the correct ... The correct area.

Neena Satija:

Okay.

Male:

Both of you are U.S. citizens?

Jay Root:

Yes, we are.

Neena Satija:

Yes.

Male:

Okay. Thank you.

Neena Satija:

All right. Thanks a lot.

Male:

They [are good 00:34:38] ...

Neena Satija:

We sent a long list of questions to Customs and Border Protection: What's the procedure if an employee tells them he's being threatened by a drug cartel? How closely does the agency examine an employee's family background?

Andrew Becker:

Another question. The agency is supposed to conduct background checks on every agent, every 5 years. We were told it's up to date on all these so-called 5-year reinvestigations.

Neena Satija:

That means Joel would have gotten a reinvestigation in 2014, months before Franky's murder. Did the reinvestigation uncover anything about his family?

Andrew Becker:

Customs and Border Protection wouldn't answer any of our questions about Joel Luna.

Neena Satija:

The agency is in the process of hiring thousands more law enforcement officers, even though it still doesn't know the extent of corruption in its own ranks.

Al Letson:

That story comes to us from The Texas Tribune's Neena Satija and Jay Root. In this episode we're examining corruption in US Customs and Border Protection. The front line of law enforcement that prevents people, illegal drugs, and weapons, from crossing into this country. The Texas Tribune and Reveal have compiled a database that suggests the problem is about more than just a few bad apples. In the last dozen years, more than 130 Customs and Border Protection officials have been arrested, charged, or convicted of corruption. To talk about it, we've got The Texas Tribune and Reveal's Neena Satija ...

Neena Satija:

Hey, Al.

Al Letson:

... and Mr. Andy Becker ...

Andrew Becker:

Hey, Al.

Al Letson:

... who covers the border for Reveal. How are you guys doing?

Neena Satija:

Pretty good.

Andrew Becker:

Doing well.

Al Letson:

All right, so my big question here, really simple: How did these people get hired?

Neena Satija:

It's a really good question and has a very complicated answer.

Andrew Becker:

Yeah, with a number of these individuals, they're relatively recent hires, the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection has gone through a pretty big expansion over the last decade; there were real challenges that Customs and Border Protection had, in being able to properly vet and screen the applicants. They had a very tight deadline given to them by Congress, pressure from the White House saying, "We need to build up the border, we got to do Border Patrol and border security, and we need to do it now."

Al Letson:

Has that agency been able to handle it? I mean, it seems that even if they bulked up their internal affairs, it still hasn't been enough.

Andrew Becker:

It really hasn't, and they went from 5 agents to about 200 or so, almost overnight; and at the same time, they didn't even have the authority to investigate their own for committing crimes. That fell to another agency, the Inspector General, that was the watchdog for the entire Homeland Security Department, which has 225,000 people, plus contractors, and oftentimes are understaffed or really don't have the experience or the skills as investigators, to really thoroughly investigate some of these crimes.

Neena Satija:

Basically the issue seems to be that the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection didn't really have the authority to investigate themselves and, on top of that, there was like a turf war, on who had the authority to investigate them. Is that right?

Andrew Becker:

That's it. That's exactly it.

Al Letson:

Andy, you've been working off of a database that you've collected. Can you talk to me about that?

Andrew Becker:

Yeah, I went and met with some different federal investigators in El Paso and San Diego and one of the guys in El Paso, he handed me this printout; and basically, it was pictures of agents and officers who worked along the border who'd been busted for corruption. We thought we could take that data and turn it into a database that we could make forward facing, so readers and viewers could look at it, and to try to get a sense of what that corruption looks like and do some data analysis with it; and so I continued to make requests for that information, and basically built dossiers on all these different agents; and then, with the help of Texas Tribune, we've updated that and enhanced it, just recently.

Al Letson:

Neena, what's the takeaway from that database?

Neena Satija:

I think the main takeaway is, honestly, Al, that it's the tip of the iceberg. I think you can tell with many stories of these Customs and Border Protection officers that have been caught, you can tell in a lot of their stories that someone else was ... Someone else may have been involved, that they may have been allowed to do this for years before getting caught. You can tell in cases that some of these folks had met with members of drug cartels trying to recruit them. You can get the sense that these are just a very small fraction maybe, of those who may be doing something wrong, who are still at the agency.

Andrew Becker:

Another story that we had done, we had taken a look at the polygraph exam, and some of the results of that, and, Al ... I'm telling you, it was stunning stuff. I mean, people who admitted that they had contemplated assassinating President Obama, people who had admitted that they had been kidnappers in a previous life, that they had woken up in a pool of blood, didn't know how they got there, someone admitted killing this kid; but we're talking about people who admitted they'd been sent by drug cartels, that they had been involved in smuggling before they even got on the job and ... These people had already gone through the majority of the hiring process.

Neena Satija:

I think another really interesting part of many of these people's stories is that a lot of them had a history of distinguished service. I mean, we talked about Joel Luna, and you interviewed David Cruz, Al, at the beginning of the show. Both had done service in the Army or in the Navy, and many of these folks in our database, who had been convicted on some pretty severe corruption charges, had been in the military before. They'd had a history of service to the United States, and then they were caught doing something totally on the flip side of that.

Al Letson:

... so there's a new sheriff in town. Mark Morgan is now the head of the Border Patrol. Do you think that's going to help matters at all?

Andrew Becker:

Mark Morgan actually comes from the FBI, and the significance of this is, for the first time in the Border Patrol's 92-year history, they have somebody from outside the agency, who doesn't wear the green uniform, who didn't come up through the Academy, who is running the show on a permanent basis, but ... There are a lot of questions about, "Can an outsider really affect change?" "Will they, will the Border Patrol rally around this guy?" or will they basically look at him and say, "You know what? He's not one of us. We're just going to wait him out, wait for the next administration, and he can say what he says, but he's not our chief."

Al Letson:

Well, Neena Satija and Andy Becker, of Reveal, I'm sure you guys will keep us informed.

Neena Satija:

Thanks, Al.

Andrew Becker:

Thanks, Al.

Al Letson:

You can see all these people's mugshots and their stories in the database at TexasTribune.org. Most of this hour we've concentrated on federal Customs and Border Protection, on graft and corruption in the force, that some consider a byproduct of the Department of Homeland Security's rapid growth. There is another consequence to that growth: As the U.S. deploys more personnel along its southern border, migrants take greater risk crossing dangerous desert territory to enter the U.S. Last year, producer Delaney Hall and I traveled to Brooks County, Texas, to get the story of some of those migrants.

9-1-1:

9-1-1, state your emergency.

Male:

Is somebody speaking Spanish?

9-1-1:

Sí.

Female:

[Spanish 00:42:10].

Al Letson:

These are 9-1-1 calls. They're from undocumented migrants lost in the dense brush country of Brooks County. People asking for help, for water.

Female:

[Spanish 00:42:18]?

9-1-1:

Sí, [Spanish 00:42:20].

Female:

[Spanish 00:42:26].

9-1-1:

[Spanish 00:42:28], okay?

Female:

[Spanish 00:42:29] ...

Al Letson:

The air is thick and hot, here. The soil is sandy and hard to walk through. Migrants can get very desperate, very fast. In this call, a woman is traveling with a man who stopped breathing.

Female:

[Spanish 00:42:39].

9-1-1:

[Spanish 00:42:41].

Al Letson:

A lot of these people don't make it, dying of dehydration and heat stroke. Sometimes their bodies aren't even found on huge ranches out here; and even when they are, the bodies are almost never identified. Hundreds of families in Latin America know someone who crossed the border and then, somewhere in Brooks County, seemed to vanish.

Female:

[Spanish 00:43:02].

9-1-1:

[Spanish 00:43:03].

Benny Martinez:

How are you all, this morning?

Female:

Hey, how are you?

Al Letson:

When migrants make the 9-1-1 calls, they're answered at the Brooks County Sheriff's Department. We met up with Chief Deputy Benny Martinez, and he told us that, back in 2012, the worst year for migrant deaths in recent memory, his team could barely keep up. He has a small department of just 4 people. Sometimes they were going out 3 times a day to pick up bodies.

Benny Martinez:

We weren't doing anything else but that. I even didn't have time to think that it was a crisis. This is one of them ...

Al Letson:

The Chief leads us over to a storage closet in the corner of his office. It's full of thick binders.

Female:

Did you find it, sir?

Benny Martinez:

Yes, ma'am, I got it. All right, thank you.

Al Letson:

Each one has pages and pages of pictures of dead bodies in it.

Benny Martinez:

From each recovery we do, it's just ... It's hard, you just can't get used to it. I mean, every single one of these persons has a story.

Al Letson:

Martinez and his team picked up 129 bodies in 2012. The way it's supposed to work is that each body is collected by a funeral home. Then autopsied by a medical examiner, to determine if there's been foul play. They are also supposed to take a DNA sample, with the hope that the body can, someday, be identified, but ... None of that happened. Brooks County is poor and rural, without many resources, so everyone was overwhelmed; so overwhelmed, that the funeral home simply brought the bodies to Brooks County cemetery and buried them in a corner set aside for the unidentified dead. Word got out that something was wrong at the cemetery. Those rumors eventually reached a researcher at Baylor University.

Dr. Baker:

I got on the phone and called the sheriff and said, "Hey, I hear you guys have a problem, would you like our help?" and they were like, "Yes, please."

Al Letson:

This is Dr. Lori Baker. She's a forensic anthropologist and a specialist in border cemeteries. She led a team of students who exhumed the Brooks County graves. The team found bodies buried in milk crates and garbage bags, they found multiple bodies stuffed in the same container, many with no identifying information.

Dr. Baker:

I was angry, at the end of last summer. I have never been so angry. I've been frustrated and sad, but this, this was just appalling. I couldn't believe that anyone would think it's okay to bury someone in a garbage bag.

Al Letson:

Over 2 summers, the team dug up more than 120 bodies that had been buried by a couple of local funeral homes. The details of the burials were shocking. They made headlines for weeks.

Male:

The Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias is supposed to be a place for dignified burials, but what researchers found ...

Male:

Now, the Texas Rangers could soon conduct a preliminary inquiry into the handling of unidentified bodies that were exhumed by anthropologists at the Falfurrias Cemetery ...

Al Letson:

The state noticed what was going on and assigned the Texas Rangers to look into whether Brooke County had broken any laws. The ranger who handled the investigation spent just 2 days on it, then he issued his report, that found no need to go forward, and closed the case, even though there were clear violations. That left Dr. Baker and her team to try and identify the bodies, with help from researchers at Texas State University. The way the bodies were handled made that process a lot harder.

Brooke Morris:

It's, I think it's hard for some people to understand that, you're processing human remains, it can feel like it's very, a gross idea; but when you start doing it you start realizing how powerful this can be to a family member, down the road.

Al Letson:

One of Dr. Baker's students, Brooke Morris, is scraping tissue from bone, and beginning the painstaking process of reassembling a skeleton.

Brooke Morris:

You're working very intimately with every single bone, as you're working through the process; so it's not until you step back and see everything that it really comes together, that this is ... This is a person, who could have been standing right next to you at some point in their life, and in your life.

Al Letson:

We go into the next room, where Dr. Baker shows us some of the clothing found with the remains of another migrant.

Dr. Baker:

Yeah, it looks like a sock, and then a pair of pants with some kind of fancy stuff on the pocket, so ... Oh, that's interesting, Mickey Mouse. That seems really sad.

Al Letson:

Something you could definitely, sort of get a sense of like what her style was, and what ... Like, who she was, a little bit.

Dr. Baker:

Absolutely. I look at this and I see all these people walking around Disney, with Mickey Mouse shirts on, and you just kind of think, "Oh, that's fun, every ... "

Al Letson:

Dr. Baker's job is to look for clues, anything that might help solve the mystery of where that person came from.

Dr. Baker:

Families deserve to know what happened. Especially in a country where we have the resources, the technology, and the expertise to do it; and if we don't do it, it's just wrong. It's absolutely wrong for us not to do this.

Al Letson:

Because they do this, Baker and others have increased the prospect that someday somebody will know the names of these anonymous migrants. Their bodies aren't buried in the corners of Brooks County Cemetery anymore, instead they're transported to the medical examiner's office in Laredo, for proper storage, analysis, and collection of DNA samples.

Dr. Baker:

I tell my students, virtually every mother that you talk to, says about the same thing: "Now I have a place to go and pray, now I have a place to lay flowers. Now I have the ability to go and be with my son or daughter."

Al Letson:

That piece was produced by Delaney Hall, based on a story by John Carlos Frey and editor Esther Kaplan at The Investigative Fund. At this point, the only proposed changes to Border policy are to deploy more U.S. boots on the ground, and extend a wall the width of Mexico. Neither of those ideas address the reality of what's on the ground, an agency with deep-seated problems. Security policies that essentially reward some of the worst criminals, and desperate people who, somehow, reach the barriers and encounter a deadly fate.

 

For more of what you just heard, plus our latest stories, go to revealnews.org, join our conversations on Facebook or Twitter. Our show was edited by Cheryl Devall. Neena Satija was our lead producer. Production oversight by Melinda [Hacey 00:49:57]. Big thanks to Texas Tribune reporters, Nicole Cobler and Kirby Wilson, and editors Dave Pasztor, Emily Ramshaw, Corrie MacLaggan, and Block House Studio in Austin, Texas. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire, C-Note, Mullen. Our head of studio is Christa Scharfenberg, Amy Pyle is our editor-in-chief, Susanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and, remember, there is always more to the story.

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