The crab floating in the water

In the spring of 2015, a man fishing with his daughters saw what he thought was a crab floating in the water. The man decided to reel in the seemingly innocuous object, but what he discovered convinced him to immediately call the police. The crab turned out to be a human body— and the corpse was missing its head.

The body was discovered in the waters of South Padre Island, a barrier island off the coast of the southern tip of Texas. If this body had been found in any other part of the United States, a boating accident would probably have been the detectives’ first guess as to the cause of death. This body, however, was found in the waters along the US-Mexico border where the detectives are all too familiar with the ways of the Mexican drug cartel, who they immediately suspected for the murder and decapitation of the victim. The county sheriff, Omar Lucio, summarized it best: “Mexican drug cartel payback often comes at the end of a fine, sharp cutting instrument.”

Authorities later discovered that the victim was an employee of a tire shop in Edinburg, Texas, a border city an hour away from the island. They eventually realized that the tire shop had ties to the large Mexican Gulf Cartel and was a front for drug trafficking. The victim was about to disclose information about the operation to the authorities, but was murdered before he had the chance, and his head was sent to Mexico to prove that the execution had been completed. The police arrested the three tire shop owners, who happened to be brothers; all of them were indicted for murder, plead not guilty, and now face a future trial by jury.

So far, this has been a story of drug trafficking and cartel violence along the border— a story that many politicians, law enforcement officers, and local media are all too familiar with. Yet, this case is different from the typical stories of cartel shootings or drug busts because it draws attention to a border issue that is often neglected. It turns out that one of the three brothers indicted for the murder, Joel Luna, was a US Border Patrol Agent— an employee of the suborganization of the Department of Homeland Security that protects and secures the US border. This story that began with a mystery of a decapitated body is actually an example of the corruption that occurs on both sides of the border among the very people that have sworn to protect it.

Corruption on the Mexican side of the border

In Mexico, this corruption is widespread, and is often blatant and unconcealed. In fact, according to the Global Corruption Barometer, Mexican citizens see the police as the most corrupt institution in the country. Police officers are especially susceptible to bribery by the drug cartels and other organized crime groups, and in some places the local police are just another enforcement arm of the cartel, carrying out kidnappings and murders on behalf of the organizations. According to Vice News, “municipal agents in the city of Iguala, Guerrero, attacked and then abducted 43 students in September 2014” before turning them over to the drug cartel. The same article even cites cases of local police kidnapping and threatening federal police officials that had been sent to investigate these abductions. One resident of Reynosa, Mexico, has stated that when he is stopped by an unidentified truck at night far from the city, he hopes that it is a cartel member stopping him and not the police. “A cartel member,” he said, “often just wants to see what you are doing to make sure you aren’t a member of a rival cartel. The police, however, could demand a bribe or worse.”

At the border on the Mexican side, the customs and border security officials comprise the corrupted. According to the GAN Business Anti-Corruption Portal’s “Mexican Corruption Report,” burdensome and complicated import procedures, forms, and tariffs mean that those transporting legal products across the border often find it easier to simply bribe customs officials. This has made border officials especially susceptible to kickbacks. The drug cartel will often bribe these same officials to overlook the transportation of drugs across the border.

Corruption on the US side of the border

Unlike in Mexico, border corruption in the United States is often concealed. However, while it is not widespread, it is far from being nonexistent. In the United States, the drug cartel is the corrupting agent in many cases, but human trafficking organizations also play a part. One reason that criminal organizations bribe agents is so that the agents will provide them with information, often in the form of patrol routes, shift schedules or, information about vulnerabilities in border defenses. While one may be tempted to label this as treason, that is not necessarily true; according to the New York Times, “[passing information to cartels] is not considered espionage or treason because they did not pass the information to a foreign government or state actor.” Regardless, agents that are found to have committed these acts are successfully tried and sentenced under anticorruption laws that explicitly apply to these scenarios.

Criminal organizations also bribe border agents to overlook and even participate in certain illicit actions, such as human smuggling or drug trafficking. This may be in the form of a recruited agent being handed a white envelop of cash by a car full of drugs at the border crossing in exchange for the agent quickly ushering them through and not inspecting the car or in the form of an agent assisting undocumented immigrants avoid apprehension after the agent receives a hefty bribe from a human trafficker.  

Mr. Luna, the Border Patrol agent currently being tried for murder, allegedly participated in both forms of cartel assistance: providing information and aiding in the moving of contraband. In fact, he had also allegedly stored contraband in his own home. According to the Texas Tribune, police searched the Border Patrol agent’s private safe and found his badge and computer password next to “[US]$89,000 in cash, more than a kilogram of cocaine, 17 grams of meth, a scale, measuring spoons, and a ledger documenting the sales of narcotics and firearms and ammunition.” What police believe to be the murder weapon was also found in the safe— a gold plated gun with “Cartel del Golfo” engraved on one side and his brother’s cartel nickname, “El pájaro,” engraved on the other. According to Gus Garza, the lead prosecutor, cases like this cause him “to see… an effort to bring the culture of violence from across the river to South Texas.”

US Border corruption by the numbers

Statements like those of Mr. Garza raise the question of how common border agent corruption actually is. Has corruption already successfully permeated the United States Border Patrol? Is it too late to stop it?

The Center for Investigative Reporting lists 153 cases of corruption between the years of 2000 and 2013, a majority of which occurred in Texas. According to a review of court documents and agency investigations conducted by the New York Times, “In the last 10 years almost 200 employees and contract workers of the Department of Homeland Security have taken nearly [US]$15,000 in bribes while being paid to protect the border.” These employees committed offenses such as allowing drugs and people to be smuggled into the country, illegally selling green cards, and providing information to the cartel that included the name of an informant. The article makes sure to note that the financial assessment of money paid in bribes does not include the value of gifts or paid trips that were accepted by agents and purchased by the cartels.

While these employees, only represent about 1 percent of all Border Patrol agents and Department of Homeland Security personnel, according to the Texas Tribune, this number may just be the tip of the iceberg, as these acts of corruption are often hard to detect. Regardless, as Inspector General John Roth of the Department of Homeland Security stated about corruption, “one person can do a lot of damage.” The impact a small amount of corruption can have on an area such as border security can be great, leaving citizens vulnerable to acts of terrorism and cartel violence.

Searching for a solution

With hundreds of corrupt officials in the United States and thousands in Mexico, it is obvious that border corruption must no longer be ignored, lest it escalate into a much larger problem in both the United States and in Mexico.

In searching for a solution, Mexico has enacted various anticorruption measures, which have had varying levels of success. In 2009, Mexico fired more than 700 of its customs workers and replaced them with new ones. According to CNN, these new agents were issued psychological exams, took drug tests, and underwent background checks. They also received specialized training on detecting drug smuggling that previous agents had not received. The emphasis placed by the Mexican government was on creating a more professional customs force and improving the public perception of the agency— creating an illusion that a more virtuous and trustworthy agency had been formed. The strategy was hampered by the fact that many citizens have more daily contact with local police than customs officials and, since law enforcement is often lumped together and the corruption of the local police remained the same, public perception of customs officials did not change. This, combined with the fact that many of the new customs officials, almost a decade later, have been corrupted by the cartels themselves, has made the measures somewhat ineffective at reducing both public perception of corruption and corruption rates.

Still, this was a very ambitious attempt on the part of the Mexican government, and clearly demonstrated the federal government’s dedication to fighting corruption. Despite the government’s dedication, many anticorruption laws remain unenforced by the federal government mostly because there is no way to enforce these laws in local areas. Even sending in federal investigators, as previously mentioned, can be ineffective since corrupt local officials are not afraid to kidnap federal agents.

Since a vast majority of the United States Border Patrol is not corrupt, it would not be desirable or practical to fire a large portion of the Border Patrol and replace it with new members. Federal investigators, however, have the potential to be very successful in preventing corruption among Border Patrol members. According to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a corruption task force was recently created to investigate potential cases of corruption among officials. Many cases of corruption could have been prevented had agencies taken the correct investigative and preventive measures in regards to employees, mistakes for which the FBI task force could compensate. For example, in the case of Agent Luna, large sums of unaccounted for drug money had been used to buy property. This could have been easily detected by the FBI task force and could have prevented further acts of corruption.

This solution, while potentially effective at reducing existing corruption, has the flaw of attempting to detect corruption after it occurs while doing nothing to prevent it. Such a method would have done nothing to prevent Mr. Luna from accepting bribes, for instance, instead would focus on catching him in the act. While fighting corruption after the acts occur may lower the number of corrupt officials in the short run, it does nothing to eliminate corruption in the long run because it ignores the underlying roots of the problem. Broad issues such as poverty and specific issues such as the proliferation of the Mexican drug cartels and human traffickers are all factors that perpetuate corruption. Border communities are among the most impoverished in both the United States and Mexico. It is this poverty and the allure of money that drives officials to accept bribes from the cartel and to turn to these illicit actions. Programs addressing poverty in these communities can be instrumental to reducing the amount of corruption found in border communities, and such programs must not be disregarded by governments. No matter how many corrupt officials are apprehended and punished, anti-corruption efforts are useless if poverty in these communities remain. No matter how many times corrupt officials like Mr. Luna are apprehended, the drug cartel will simply recruit another person in need of money to take his place.

In addition, one cannot ignore the drug cartels and human traffickers that perpetuate this corruption by exploiting and taking advantage of other human beings to achieve their illicit goals. So long as the cartels remain active and grow in strength, there will always be corruption among border agents. The struggle against the cartels and against human smugglers has been a long battle fought by both the Mexican and US governments, but they must not give up the fight. These criminal organizations must be defeated if the goal of eliminating border corruption will ever be reached.

The United States and Mexico must not ignore stories such as Mr. Luna’s which must be analyzed and used to fight the corruption spreading across borders. Even from this one case, much insight as to how corruption occurs, its prevalence, and how it can be stopped has been gained— and this case is just the tip of the iceberg. What begins as the tale of a headless body floating in the Gulf of Mexico can end with societal change, as we apply the lessons learned and use them to end the corruption occurring in border communities. There is a responsibility for the media to report these stories, for politicians to take them into account when crafting policy, and for civilians to educate themselves so that they can recognize corruption and report it. Corruption among the very people that take an oath to defend others must be eliminated.