As reported by Martha Mendoza and Christopher Sherman of the ASSOCIATED PRESS:
McALLEN, Texas — Corruption along the U.S.-Mexican border takes many forms.
It can start as simply as a smuggler’s $50 gift to the child of a reluctant federal agent, quickly escalating to out-and-out bribes. “Everyone does it,” the agent, now in prison, recalls telling himself.
Other times, county sheriffs greedily grab thousands from drug dealers. In a few instances, traffickers even place members in the applicant pool for sensitive border-protection jobs.
An Associated Press investigation has found U.S. law officers who work the border are being charged with criminal corruption in numbers not seen before, as drug and immigrant smugglers use money and sometimes sex to buy protection, and internal investigators crack down.
Based on Freedom of Information Act requests, interviews with sentenced agents and a review of court records, the AP tallied corruption-related convictions against more than 80 enforcement officials at all levels — federal, state and local — since 2007, shortly after Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels that peddle up to $39 billion worth of drugs in the United States each year.
U.S. officials have long pointed to Mexico’s rampantly corrupt cops and broken judicial system, but Calderón told the AP this isn’t just a Mexican problem.
“To get drugs into the United States, the one you need to corrupt is the American authority, the American customs, the American police — not the Mexican. And that’s a subject, by the way, which hasn’t been addressed with sincerity,” the Mexican president said. “I’m waging my battle against corruption among Mexican authorities, and we’re risking everything to clean our house, but I think there also needs to be a good cleaning on the other side of the border.”
In fact, U.S. prosecutors have been taking notice. Drug traffickers look “for weaknesses in the armor,” said former prosecutor Yolanda de Leon in Cameron County, Texas.
One such weakness was her own county’s Sheriff Conrado Cantu. With his thick mustache, ample belly and Western hat, Cantu was a backslapping natural in the political machine of Cameron County, population 335,000. The county includes Brownsville, Texas, directly across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico.
In no time, Cantu rose from constable to sheriff, a job he later acknowledged he was unqualified to hold. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of running a criminal enterprise involved in extortion, drug trafficking and bribery. He’s now serving a 24-year sentence for extorting money from drug traffickers and illegal gambling operations.
“If the opportunity came along, he would take it,” de Leon said.