Us

Customs agent's arrest, new report bare corruption issue

Number of people caught hidden in car trunks at border crossings up 50 percent from 2014

 

The arrest last week of a Customs and Border Protection employee on charges of smuggling illegal immigrants followed a damning report on corruption within the federal agency.

Supervisory Customs and Border Protection officer Lawrence Madrid, 53, was arrested July 24 at his El Paso home by agents of Homeland Security Investigations and charged with alien smuggling. Madrid, a 20-year veteran, is one of 177 agency employees who have faced corruption charges since 2005, according to CBP spokesman Roger Maier.

“SCBPO Madrid was the ninth CBP employee arrested, indicted, or otherwise prosecuted this fiscal year on corruption related charges,” Maier said.

"Madrid was the ninth CBP employee arrested, indicted, or otherwise prosecuted this fiscal year on corruption related charges.”

- Roger Maier, CBP spokesman

The allegations against Madrid stem from 2010, when he appeared on the NPR report entitled "Drugs Cross Border by Truck, Free Trade and Chance," and the next year. In the report, Madrid was profiled on-duty interviewing illegal immigrants crossing from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso and discussing the techniques he uses to identify those involved in criminal activity.

"When they're handing you the documentation, the first thing you look at is their hands, whether they are trembling," Madrid told NPR staffer John Burnett. "Whether they...take time to answer the questions or that they're stuttering when they answer--just stuff like that you pick up."

But Madrid was nabbed years later when an informant told authorities in January, 2014, that the agent had allegedly smuggled illegal immigrants across the Bridge of the Americas in August, 2010. According to an arrest affidavit, the unnamed informant told officers that his wife paid a man to help smuggle him across the bridge and that a CBP officer he identified as Madrid assisted. The informant said he and two other Mexican citizens were allegedly smuggled through the pedestrian lane on the bridge Madrid was manning, according to the affidavit.

Agents also received information in May 2014 that another couple had been smuggled into the U.S. with the help of a CBP officer in 2011, the affidavit states. That informant allegedly identified Madrid in a photo lineup, and investigators corroborated both accounts through phone records, work schedules and interviews with other witnesses, the affidavit states.

Madrid's arrest put a human face on a report Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson ordered last year. That report, which was filed last month, identified an ongoing threat to CBP and the need to beef up the agency’s internal affairs investigative staff.

“The investigations are nearly all reactive and do not use proactive, risk analysis to identify potential corruption,” the report said.

The agency currently has 218 investigators in its Office of Internal Affairs for the agency that has 66,000 employees. The panel that produced the report called for 565 investigators.

In a June 11 interview for the El Paso Times, Stuart Harris, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 1929 in El Paso, called allegations of widespread corruption raised in the CBP Integrity Advisory Panel a “publicity stunt to appease the special interest groups than anything else.”

A congressional aid speaking on background said that while polygraph tests are part of the pre-employment vetting process, union collective bargaining has prohibited testing of incumbent agents such as Madrid. The aide also said in the exponential growth the agency experienced between 2005-2007, where background checks may have been lax, more cases of corruption would not be surprising.

“I won't comment on details of this case but I strongly believe that all CBP officers should be held to the highest standards,” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) whose district includes El Paso.