SAN DIEGO -- Agent Rodolfo Zúñiga loves his job. A native of Laredo, Texas, he was stationed in San Diego during a stint in the Navy. He loved this area so much that he applied for a job at the Border Patrol just to get back here. And he did, four years ago, after passing a series of tests, including a background test and a lie-detector test.
“You don’t only go through a background investigation when you begin," said Zúñiga. He was describing the measures taken by Border Patrol to prevent corruption within the agency. "Every five years, all agents go through a background investigation.”
On this day, Zúñiga gave a tour of the border wall separating Tijuana from San Ysidro, describing the height of the fence, and the sturdy material it was rebuilt with a few years ago to increase security. He also showed all the areas that have been patched up after numerous break-ins at the bottom of the wall.
It's this seemingly never-ending flow of illegal migrants and drug shipments that keeps Border Patrol officers busy night and day, every day of the year. But some agents can get sucked into this illegal activity as well, and end up working for the cartels and smuggling networks.
Five months ago, San Diego Border Patrol agent Marcos Manzano was found to be harboring undocumented immigrants and stashing drugs in his home. Zúñiga could not believe the news.
“He was an agent out of Imperial Beach, and I knew him personally working out here," said Zúñiga. "I was just shocked. I couldn't believe he was corrupt, or at least the allegations; I couldn't believe he was in trouble.”
Manzano’s arrest was the latest in a series in the San Diego area: Since 2008, at least five Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol officers have been charged with drug and human smuggling, and bribery. In El Paso, a female agent received $5 million in bribes in exchange for letting drug cartels bring an estimated 2,200 pounds of marijuana into the country.
All together, 127 Customs and Border Protection personnel across the U.S. have been arrested, charged and convicted of corruption since October 2004.
“This breach of trust is something that we do not stand for," CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin recently told a Senate Committee. "While seven years and tens of thousands of employees have been besmirched by these evidences of corruption, we take each and everyone of them seriously.”
The CBP is now required to administer lie-detector tests to all applicants and to conduct periodic background checks of all employees. But according to critics, the current hiring drive makes it difficult to keep up with all the testing -- some of which is contracted out to private security companies. Still, CBP Commissioner Bersin has admitted that one-third of all applicants who take the lie-detector test fail it.
This trend comes as no surprise to Terry Nelson, a registered Republican and nine-year veteran of the Border Patrol. Nelson has argued that the agency has struggled with corruption and cartel infiltration for a long time.
“I believe that our border security people have been infiltrated by the cartels and I think it began 12 to 15 years ago, but really it began after the attacks of September 11th, 2001,” said Nelson.
Nelson was an agent in the 1970s and '80s in El Paso where, he said, there were also many temptations. But back then, background checks were done by the FBI, not by private contractors. The agents were older on average and more professional, and there was less turnover of staff, he said. Today, according to Nelson, the Border Patrol is stuck with too many new hires, too fast.
“Mismanagement hired all these young officers without having senior officers around to manage them," said Nelson. "But we’re losing the people in the (Border) Patrol, because they’re taking the ones that can shine and taking them to the other federal agencies.”
Many Border Patrol agents end up leaving for agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the FBI, where pay and prestige are better. According to the Government Accountability Office, an estimated 30 percent of agents leave their jobs in less than 18 months. One out of every 100 is currently under investigation for corruption.