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.
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.