A sun-faded homeland security sign awaits motorists as they enter the United States from Mexico at the border in San Ysidro, California. Image courtesy Mike Blake/Reuters
When Luis Alarid was a child, his mother would seat him in the car while she smuggled people and drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. She was the sweet-talking commuter, he was her cute boy, and the mother-son ploy regularly kept customs inspectors from peeking inside the trunk.
Twenty-five years later, Alarid was back at the border in San Diego, seeking a job as a customs inspector. To get hired by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, he first needed to clear screening that examined his personal, financial and work histories.
Alarid had served in the Marines and Army, which was a factor in his favor. But there was cause for concern: His finances were in shambles, including $30,000 in credit card debt. His mother, father and other relatives had been convicted of or indicted on charges of smuggling.
After the background check and an interview, Alarid was cleared for a border posting.
Within months, he turned his government job into a lucrative criminal enterprise. In cahoots with a gang that included his uncle and, allegedly, his mother, Alarid let cars into California filled with drugs and illegal immigrants.
"I was inside now, going around understanding how things work," Alarid said in a telephone interview from federal prison in Kentucky, where he is serving a seven-year sentence for corruption.
Alarid's is one of several corruption cases in recent years that have raised concerns about the adequacy of the customs agency's screening, a joint examination by The Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
As the agency rapidly increased staffing, the system designed to identify shady job applicants struggled to keep pace, resulting in hurried background checks and loosened hiring standards, said former and current Customs officials, background investigators and Border Patrol union officials.
At a congressional hearing in June, Customs Commissioner Alan Bersin acknowledged screening problems, and other officials have said that insufficient funding created a backlog of background investigations. "The accelerated hiring pace under which we operated between 2006 and 2008 … exposed critical organizational and individual vulnerabilities within," Bersin said.
Alarid's case and others also highlight the difficulty of assessing job candidates: Should prospective agents, for instance, be rejected because of the crimes of relatives? Should a background in Mexican law enforcement be enough to disqualify a candidate because of that country's rampant police corruption? Are high debt levels a sign of recklessness or the consequence of a weak economy?
Border agents and Customs inspectors are exposed to endless illegal moneymaking opportunities. Dozens of officers in recent years have turned their government jobs into illicit riches, funding desert estates and Las Vegas gambling binges, luxury cars and buying sprees at Tiffany's.
"It's such a perfect storm, if you will, down there along the southwest border, with the vast supply of money and the aggressive tactics of the cartels," said Terry Reed, an FBI supervisory agent.
Since October 2004, 132 Customs employees have been indicted or convicted on corruption-related charges, the majority from the Southwest border. Since 2006, the number of investigations has more than tripled, from 244 to about 870 last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General.
Of the 24,000 Customs agents along the southwest border, about half were hired in the last five years. The agency is on track to hire 2,500 additional agents in the next year.
Job requirements at Customs, for which agents don't need a high school diploma, have always been more lenient than at other federal agencies. The FBI, for example, requires a college degree and relevant work experience. Critics contend that the Border Patrol traditionally hired candidates with some military or college experience but that that changed in recent years, when the ranks were filled with younger and less-experienced applicants, some still in their teens.
W. Ralph Basham, Customs commissioner from 2006 until 2009, said he told high-ranking officials at the Department of Homeland Security that he was not comfortable with the agency's rapid expansion. Those concerns were dismissed.
"We cautioned against this strategy, but we were under tremendous pressure along the Southwest border to do something," Basham said.
The sharp increase in corruption cases has resulted in reforms. Customs started bolstering its internal affairs division in 2007, and Congress last year passed legislation that requires all prospective agents by 2013 to undergo polygraph testing.
So many applicants were awaiting screening in 2009 that the turnaround time was 294 days, government statistics showed. In some cases, investigators under pressure to work faster cut corners by doing fewer, or shorter, interviews of candidates' former employers, landlords and relatives. Some of the background checks are done by outside contractors who get paid per investigation and have an incentive to quickly complete the reviews.
"Whenever there's a big fluctuation in hiring, it puts a real strain on the selection process and background investigations involved," said William Henderson, a retired government background investigator and author of a security clearance manual.
The backlog has also hampered reviews of veteran agents, who often don't undergo the required five-year periodic investigations until years later, said background investigators and agents.
Even with sufficient time, screeners can't always get a full picture of an applicant's life. John Paul Yanez-Camacho, for instance, was a former law enforcement officer from the Mexican state of Chihuahua and a manager of a nightclub in Ciudad Juarez owned by a suspected drug trafficker when he applied in 2003 to be an inspector. But investigators didn't know his full employment history, in part because the Mexican government doesn't permit U.S. background investigators to conduct probes in their country.
Two years after being hired, Yanez-Camacho started accessing a sensitive law enforcement database without authorization. From 2005 to 2006, he did so more than 250 times, often trying to get information about law enforcement investigations involving the suspected drug trafficker, according to his plea agreement.
Authorities suspected that Yanez-Camacho was passing along confidential information, but his motives remain a mystery. "He can't explain how he did that, why he did that and why he compromised his situation at the port of entry," Assistant U.S. Atty. Ed Weiner said at a court hearing in 2009 at which Yanez-Camacho was sentenced to probation for the misdemeanor violation.
Agents who are longtime border residents are often more susceptible to corruption because they often inherit networks of family members involved with organized crime, Customs officials say.
Former Border Patrol agent Salomon Ruiz, convicted of corruption in 2009, had uncles who were longtime smugglers in the McAllen, Texas, area, and his father had been deported to Mexico for drug trafficking. Jesus Huizar, a border patrol agent convicted in 2008, partnered with his wife's uncle, a known trafficker, in a human-smuggling scheme in El Paso.
The Customs agency could address the problem by forbidding most agents from working in their hometowns. But relocation is costly, and it's harder to find applicants who want to move, border authorities said.
The background investigator for Alarid, the San Diego customs inspector, asked him if he had contact with his parents. Alarid, who was raised in foster homes for much of his youth, said no. It was a lie.
Alarid was proud of his family's smuggling pedigree. He said he idolized his grandfather, a longtime drug trafficker from Baja California who in 1978 was indicted on trafficking charges. He'd visit with his father, a convicted drug dealer, and he'd take groceries and money to his often-homeless mother, who had served jail terms for smuggling and arson convictions.
But Alarid had a lot going for him. He was a high school track star and received commendations for his military service in Kosovo and Iraq. When his employment application was forwarded to an adjudicator who made hiring decisions, the adjudicator decided in Alarid's favor.
Alarid's large debt "was carefully reviewed, and there was believed to be mitigating factors, and there was a determination of suitable," said James Tomsheck, the agency's assistant commissioner for internal affairs.
Within months of going to work for Customs in October 2007, the rookie opened the gates. On cigarette breaks he would make calls to smugglers in Tijuana, telling them which lane at the port of entry he was handling. Over a four-month period, Alarid's scheme earned him about $200,000.
Some federal officials and investigators question Alarid's hiring. Screeners should have delved deeper into his relationship with his biological parents, and his debt seemed excessive, they said.
"There should have been some red flags that went up there. That guy should never have been hired," said Earl Stickler, a background investigator from Arizona.
Even Alarid, 35, wonders how he got the job.
"If I was a background investigator, I wouldn't have hired me," he said.