Corruption by Customs Officials Facilitating Cross-Border Criminal Activity

04/26/21 (written by rramos) – A growing number of customs officials in various parts of Mexico have come under investigation for alleged acts of corruption that purportedly enabled criminal networks to operate across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Animal Político reported on April 13 that the federal Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) was investigating ten officials of the General Customs Administration (Administración General de Aduanas, AGA) who oversaw several ports of entry along Mexico’s northern border with the United States. This came after the Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera, UIF), the anti-money laundering office within the federal finance ministry (Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público, SHCP), detected numerous irregularities in the financial records of 29 AGA employees. As a result, all 29 officials were removed from their positions and ten were formally referred by the UIF to the FGR for further criminal investigation.

Specifically, the ten former customs officials are alleged to have accepted bribes in exchange for allowing contraband to pass uninterrupted through the border inspection sites under their supervision. The contraband that was illegally permitted to enter Mexico from the United States included firearms, gasoline, and drugs. According to investigators, ill-gotten proceeds from the alleged bribes were then laundered through a variety of complex methods, ranging from suspicious real estate transactions to the use of front companies.  

There are possible indications that corruption in Mexico’s customs service may be increasing. According to La Jornada, a total of 90 civil servants in the Tax Administration Service (Servicio de Administración Tributaria, SAT), the AGA’s parent agency, were referred to prosecutors for alleged corruption in 2020. This represents a nearly two-fold increase from 2019, when 46 SAT officials were formally denounced for possible corruption. Most of the SAT employees who faced criminal investigations in 2020 worked specifically for the AGA and were accused of receiving bribes related to the passage of contraband through Mexican customs.

Photo: El Sol de Tijuana.

Border Hot Spots

Investigations by the FGR and UIF have zoomed in on pervasive corruption in customs operations in two major border states: Baja California and Tamaulipas. Due to their geographic location, both states are of great strategic importance for criminal actors seeking to operate in both Mexico and the United States.

In Baja California, former administrators of customs inspection facilities in the border cities of Tijuana, Mexicali, and Tecate are accused of permitting the entry of illegally imported vehicles, some of which are believed to have contained firearms destined for recipients located in Mexico. Meanwhile in Tamaulipas, federal investigators believe high-level customs officials at border crossings in Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros have received bribes in exchange for allowing trailer trucks to bring gasoline, diesel, and other fuels from the U.S. state of Texas to be illegally re-sold at low prices in Mexico. In one specific case, a March 2021 FGR report highlighted the critical role played by customs personnel in Tamaulipas in a sprawling conspiracy that allowed considerable amounts of fuel to be smuggled into Mexico without payment of import duties. Across all instances, UIF detection of suspicious financial activities was vital in identifying potentially corrupt officials that facilitated the illicit movement of goods across the international border. 

Impact on Crime and the Rule of Law

Corruption among customs authorities has significant implications for security and the rule of law in Mexico. Santiago Nieto Castillo, the UIF’s current director, told Animal Político that malfeasance among customs officials and the resulting “porous nature of our borders” (author’s own translation) heightened Mexico’s vulnerability to transnational security threats, particularly those related to illicit trafficking.

A prominent example of how customs corruption can exacerbate security challenges in Mexico has been the continuous southbound flow of firearms coming from the United States. A significant portion of firearms that are illegally imported from the U.S. end up in the possession of criminal groups in Mexico. Officials from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) told the Washington Post that roughly 70% of firearms found at crime scenes in Mexico can ultimately be traced back to the United States. According to National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP) data cited by the Washington Post, this increase in the number of U.S. firearms in Mexico has coincided with a rise in homicides in Mexico that are committed with a firearm. Although Mexican officials have consistently pointed out the need for U.S. authorities to more strictly regulate the export of arms, interdiction of illegal weapons shipments at Mexican ports of entry remains severely hampered due to pervasive corruption among customs personnel. 

The apparent increase in cross-border fuel trafficking is also of particular concern. At a recent event at the Nuevo Laredo border crossing, new AGA Administrator Horacio Duarte Olivares underscored the need to combat fuel smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border as part of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s broader emphasis on tackling government corruption. Duarte Olivares claimed that corruption in the customs service has allowed “millions of liters of fuel, of hydrocarbons” (author’s own translation) to illegally enter the country, resulting in substantial revenue losses for the Mexican government and legitimate businesses.

Customs Corruption Spurring Further Militarization

As a result of the growing number of reports of corruption among customs officials, the López Obrador administration announced on April 21 that the Mexican Army (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) would assume control of 14 customs facilities in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, with the long-term goal of establishing a military presence in all customs offices along the northern border with the United States. Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval explained the move was intended to prevent U.S. firearms from flowing to organized crime groups. According to Milenio, military officials who were recently assigned to lead customs operations in Nuevo Laredo were also given the additional task of impeding illicit fuel smuggling across the border. 

Expanding the responsibilities of the military has been a defining feature of President López Obrador’s approach to security policy. However, just as prior militarized strategies have been largely unable to solve Mexico’s complex public security challenges, it is not guaranteed that increasing the military’s role in customs operations will eradicate corruption at the country’s borders and ports of entry. 

Sources

Gallegos, Zorayda. “Las aduanas y puertos mexicanos: la vía libre del crimen organizado.” El País. August 10, 2020. 

Sieff, Kevin & Miroff, Nick. “Los fusiles de francotirador que fluyen hacia los cárteles mexicanos revelan una década de fracaso estadounidense.” Washington Post. November 19, 2020.

Linthicum, Kate & McDonell, Patrick J. “Mexico’s military gains power as president turns from critic to partner.” Los Angeles Times. November 21, 2020. 

“SAT limpia de corrupción la casa; envía a 90 al MP.” El Universal. February 5, 2021.  

Rodríguez, Israel. “Se duplica cifra de funcionarios corruptos del SAT denunciados.” La Jornada. February 8, 2021.  

Rodríguez, Israel. “Aduanas continuarán con el combate al tráfico de combustibles.” La Jornada. March 1, 2021. 

“Mandos con perfiles militares toman control de aduana de Nuevo Laredo.” Milenio. March 2, 2021. 

Rivadeneyra, Gerardo. “Denuncian a empresa presuntamente involucrada en el contrabando de combustible.” Vanguardia. March 3, 2021. 

Maldonado, Mario. “Limpia en aduanas y denuncias de corrupción.” El Universal. March 10, 2021. 

Ángel, Arturo, Raziel, Zedryk, & Sandoval, Francisco. “10 oficiales de comercio de aduanas designados en este gobierno son indagados por lavado, narco y contrabando.” Animal Político. April 13, 2021. 

Hernández, Diego Joaquín. “Purga en Aduanas; pegan a círculo del exsubsecretario Peralta.” La Silla Rota. April 13, 2021.   

Ángel, Arturo, Raziel, Zedryk, & Sandoval, Francisco. “Presuntos sobornos por más de mil millones, empresas fantasma y nexos con el narco: la corrupción en aduanas.” Animal Político. April 14, 2021. 

Álvarez, Carlos. “UIF denuncia corrupción en aduanas de Tijuana, Mexicali y Tecate; empresas “fantasma”, sobornos y nexos con narco.” Zeta Tijuana. April 15, 2021. 

Domínguez, Pedro. “Sedena toma control de aduanas en frontera norte para frenar tráfico de armas.” Milenio. April 21, 2021. 

Headed for the Exits: An Empirical Assessment of Key Factors Driving Honduran Emigration

 

08/07/19- With the surge in Central American families and unaccompanied children traveling through Mexico to the United States, there has been a compelling need to better understand why people are leaving the region in such great numbers. Despite the increased attention being paid to this phenomenon, there is a lack of consensus about the factors driving Central American migrants to leave their homes. While some researchers point to clear economic underpinnings of the mass emigration, others claim that the vast majority of people are fleeing violence and insecurity.

In the paper entitled “Headed for the Exits: An Empirical Assessment of Key Factors Driving Honduran Emigration,” Ryan Williams uses survey data collected by the Latin American Public Opinion Project to compare the relationship between economic and security factors and the individual decision to emigrate from the country of Honduras. While there is an ongoing mass emigration from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, Mr. Williams selects Honduras as his country of focus for three reasons:

  1. The country has been the starting point for recent migrant caravans, including a group of more than 7,000 that travelled to the U.S. – Mexico border in October 2018.[1]
  2. The population of immigrants from Honduras living in the United States has grown more sharply over the past decade than that from either Guatemala or El Salvador.[2]
  3. Honduras is one of the poorest and most violent countries in Latin America. This makes it a more intriguing sample population for the larger region than El Salvador, which suffers more from violence than poverty, or Guatemala, which suffers from grinding poverty but lower levels of violence relative to Honduras and El Salvador.[3]

Recent estimates suggest that approximately 200-400 people are currently leaving the country of Honduras each day.[4] Over the past five years, roughly half a million people have left the nation of 9 million. In reviewing the existing literature about what drives emigration from Honduras, Mr. Williams identifies possible factors to consider, including poverty, crime, significant issues with governance, major flaws in the justice system, rampant corruption and high levels of impunity, widespread social inequality, and serious environmental risks due to climate change.

Recent research points to two dominant explanations for why people emigrate from Honduras: either because of economic conditions or security concerns in the country. There is a disconnect, however, between those who believe the most significant factors driving people to emigrate are economic in nature and those who see the root problem as violence and insecurity faced by Hondurans. This is the question driving Mr. Williams’ research: which factor, economics or security, has a greater impact on the decision to leave Honduras?

To answer this question, Mr. Williams analyzes survey data collected from residents of Honduras as part of the Latin American Public Opinion Project’s AmericasBarometer survey, which focuses on political, economic, and quality-of-life issues in countries throughout Latin America. The most recent round of surveys took place in 2016 and 2017, and included surveys taken in 29 countries and totaling more than 43,000 interviews. The 2016 survey in Honduras was conducted among a nationally representative sample of 1,560 voting age adults through face-to-face interviews.

This analysis reveals that Hondurans are more likely to express an intention to emigrate if they have been a victim of crime. This likelihood increases by 28.6 percent for each additional crime victimization survey respondents reported. On the other hand, there appears to be a weak relationship between individual or household economic conditions and the intention to emigrate. Contrary to what may be expected, the likelihood of an individual expressing their intention to emigrate actually increases by 2.4 percent for each step up in reported monthly household income. The results were slightly different when considering an individuals’ perception of their personal economic situation. In that case, those with a perception of being worse off were more likely to express intentions to emigrate than those with a more positive perception.

Mr. Williams’ research illustrates that in the aggregate, Hondurans are more likely to express an intention to emigrate if they have been the victim of crime than they are as a result of poverty. These findings are relevant as we work to better understand and appropriately characterize the mass migration out of Central America. The research also serves as an important reminder to the United States that the children and families arriving at its Southern border should be received as potential victims fleeing crime and violence, and not merely as impoverished migrants in search of economic opportunity. Finally, based upon these findings, policy makers in the United States and elsewhere looking for ways to improve conditions in Honduras and stem the massive flow of people out of the region should make reducing crime and enhancing security their highest priorities.

 

 

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[1] El Colegio De La Frontera Norte. La Caravana de Migrantes Centroamericanos en Tijuana 2018: Diagnostico y Propuestas de Accion. Tijuana: 2018. Accessed February 21, 2019.

[2] D’Vera Cohn, Jeffrey S. Passel, Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “Immigration from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador Up,” Pew Research Center, June 04, 2018, http://www.pewhispanic.org/2017/12/07/rise-in-u-s-immigrants-from-el-salvador-guatemala-and-honduras-outpaces-growth-from-elsewhere/.

[3] “Honduras Profile,” InSight Crime, last modified August 29, 2018, https://www.insightcrime.org/honduras-organized-crime-news/honduras/.

[4] Azam Ahmed, Katie Rogers and Jeff Ernst. “How the Migrant Caravan Became a Trump Election Strategy.” New York Times, October 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/24/world/americas/migrant-caravan-trump.html.