Beheadings and amputations. Iraqi-style brutality, bribery, extortion, kidnapping, and murder. More than 7,200 dead—almost double last year's tally—in shoot-outs between federales and often better-armed drug cartels. This is modern Mexico, whose president, Felipe Calderón, has been struggling since 2006 to wrest his country from the grip of four powerful cartels and their estimated 100,000 foot soldiers.
But chillingly, there are signs that one of the worst features of Mexico's war on drugs—law enforcement officials on the take from drug lords—is becoming an American problem as well. Most press accounts focus on the drug-related violence that has migrated north into the United States. Far less widely reported is the infiltration and corruption of American law enforcement, according to Robert Killebrew, a retired U.S. Army colonel and senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. "This is a national security problem that does not yet have a name," he wrote last fall in The National Strategy Forum Review. The drug lords, he tells me, are seeking to "hollow out our institutions, just as they have in Mexico."
Corruption indictments and convictions linked to drug-trafficking organizations, known in police parlance as DTOs, are popping up in FBI press releases with disturbing frequency. In April, for instance, the U.S. Attorney's office in the Southern District of Texas announced that Sergio Lopez Hernandez, a 40-year-old Customs and Border Protection inspector, had been convicted of drug trafficking, alien smuggling, and bribery. Hernandez pleaded guilty to accepting over $150,000 in bribes and to conspiring to sell cocaine and bring illegal aliens into the country.
Or consider the case of border inspector Margarita Crispin—"precisely the kind of border corruption case that alarms us," says William Abbott, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's criminal branch in El Paso, Texas. In 2005, he says, a federal informant tipped off the Bureau that Crispin was deliberately ignoring traffickers who moved drugs and other contraband through her border post. Then, in the spring of 2006, a van that had just gone through Crispin's lane sputtered out of gas. The driver abandoned the vehicle and fled back across the border into Mexico—and when other inspectors opened the van's doors, they found nearly 6,000 pounds of marijuana in plain sight. Crispin couldn't explain why she hadn't noticed the stash when she had examined the vehicle, according to an FBI press release on the case and an official who worked on it.
Another year of surveillance uncovered evidence of Crispin's drug-cartel connections. Though she lived simply in El Paso, she socialized with known drug traffickers in Mexico and had bought two expensive homes and several luxury vehicles there through straw purchasers. Crispin was then arrested. After pleading guilty in 2008 to conspiring to import drugs and abusing the public trust, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to forfeit $5 million in assets she was estimated to have stolen.
Government investigators believe that Crispin had been working for the cartels for at least a year before she applied to become an inspector. In other words, federal screening failed to detect that, at the time she applied for her job, the cartels had already recruited her to facilitate their cross-border trafficking. At one point, federal investigators say, Crispin claimed to have wanted out of her arrangement with the cartels. "But we think she was kidnapped and forcibly taken back to Mexico to remind her of whom she was working for," Abbott says. Having family in both Juárez and El Paso, cities within sight of each other across the border, Crispin found herself trapped.
Abbott says that the Crispin case is atypical. But the potential damage, he stresses, is huge. "You have the mule: an illegal immigrant who carries five pounds of marijuana in his backpack across the border through the desert. Compare that with the border inspector who waves through five completely loaded vans, as she did."
Experts disagree about how deep this rot runs. Some try to downplay the phenomenon, dismissing the law enforcement officials who have succumbed to bribes or intimidation from the drug cartels as a few bad apples. Peter Nuñez, a former U.S. attorney who lectures at the University of San Diego, says he does not believe that there has been a noticeable surge of cartel-related corruption along the border, partly because the FBI, which has been historically less corrupt than its state and local counterparts, has significantly ratcheted up its presence there. "It's harder to be as corrupt today as locals were in the 1970s, when there wasn't a federal agent around for hundreds of miles," he says.
But Jason Ackleson, an associate professor of government at New Mexico State University, disagrees. "U.S. Customs and Border Protection is very alert to the problem," he tells me. "Their internal investigations caseload is going up, and there are other cases that are not being publicized." While corruption is not widespread, "if you increase the overall number of law enforcement officers as dramatically as we have"—from 9,000 border agents and inspectors prior to 9/11 to a planned 20,000 by the end of 2009—"you increase the possibility of corruption due to the larger number of people exposed to it and tempted by it." Note, too, that Drug Enforcement Agency data suggest that Mexican cartels are operating in at least 230 American cities.
Washington is taking no chances. In recent months, the FBI's Criminal Division has created seven multiagency task forces and assigned 120 agents to investigate public corruption, drug-related and otherwise, in the Southwest border region, says Debbie Weierman of the FBI's public-affairs office in Washington. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection, the largest U.S. law enforcement agency, has increased the number of its internal investigators over three years from five to 220.
And David Shirk, director of the San Diego–based Trans-Border Institute and a political scientist at the University of San Diego, says that recent years have seen an "alarming" increase in the number of Department of Homeland Security personnel being investigated for possible corruption. "The number of cases filed against DHS agents in recent years is in the hundreds," says Shirk. "And that, obviously, is a potentially huge problem." An August 2009 investigation by the Associated Press supports his assessment. Based on records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, court records, and interviews with sentenced agents, the AP concluded that more than 80 federal, state, and local border-control officials had been convicted of corruption-related crimes since 2007, soon after President Calderón launched his war on the cartels. Over the previous ten months, the AP data showed, 20 Customs and Border Protection agents alone had been charged with a corruption-related crime. If that pace continued, the reporters concluded, "the organization will set a new record for in-house corruption."
While the FBI task forces focus mainly on corruption along the border, cartel-related vice has spread much deeper into the American heartland. Consider New Mexico's San Juan County, some 450 miles north of the border, where the U.S. Attorney's office has recently prosecuted a startling corruption case that may be a portent of things to come.
Back in 1994, Ken Christesen was a detective in the Four Corners, the region where the borders of Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico meet. That was the year that one Miguel Tarango was convicted of murdering a member of a rival drug gang in a territorial dispute. The conviction made Christesen realize that the Tarango family was "far more significant than we had initially thought" in the local drug trade, he tells me over coffee at Donna Kay's, a popular café in Bloomfield, New Mexico.
Even in a county where 80 to 90 percent of all serious crimes are linked to drugs—an area where "you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a drug dealer"—the Tarangos stood out. The family was locally based but had ties to Mexico's Sinaloa and Juárez cartels, and it had big ideas about controlling the lucrative trade in methamphetamine and other illicit drugs in San Juan County. The clan's rising star was Daniel Tarango, Jr., a short, slim, American-born hipster with a pencil-thin mustache, a fondness for black T-shirts, and no visible means of support. After his father and uncle were convicted of heavy-duty meth trafficking, sent to federal prison, and deported, Danny, known to local cops as "the Runt," took charge of the family business.
By 2002, Christesen had become a lieutenant in the San Juan County sheriff's office, where he participated in Operation Farmland, an effort run by a federal, state, and local alliance called the Region II Narcotics Task Force. The operation, which targeted meth sales in the Four Corners, ended in 2003 with 250 people charged, among them Mike Marshall, a former sheriff's deputy sentenced to five years in federal prison for distributing drugs. Christesen happened to know that Marshall and Danny Tarango had often been seen together. If Tarango had befriended Marshall, Christesen reasoned, might he also be trying to get inside information from active cops about the task force itself?
The hero of Operation Farmland was Levi Countryman, then a San Juan County sheriff's deputy who had gotten many of the tips and intelligence that led to the massive arrests. Despite Countryman's ostensibly heroic role in Farmland, Christesen was suspicious. Farmland hadn't fingered a single member of the Tarango clan, despite its growing prominence in the county drug trade. And despite Farmland's apparent success, methamphetamine still flowed freely into Farmington, Bloomfield, Shiprock, Aztec, and other forlorn, trailer-strewn desert towns in the Four Corners.
Christesen concluded that Danny Tarango and Levi Countryman were working together—that "we made the arrests, Levi became a hero, and Danny got rich by eliminating his competition," Christesen recalls. But he had no proof. Nevertheless, when he took over the Narcotics Task Force in October 2004, he quietly put Levi Countryman at the top of his target list.
Christesen's suspicions about Countryman had been reinforced in the spring of 2004, when officers searching one of Danny Tarango's many houses found an all-terrain vehicle registered in Countryman's name. What was Countryman's ATV doing in the Runt's garage? Under intense scrutiny, Countryman resigned as deputy sheriff and told friends that he would enter the private sector as a stock trader.
But sensitive task-force information kept leaking out to the Tarangos, much to Christesen's frustration. Every time Christesen got close to persuading someone to talk or testify in a drug-related case, the inquiry would fall apart. A parade of witnesses who had agreed to testify would suddenly change their minds. One potential witness in a drug case against Josh Tarango, Danny's younger brother, refused to testify in 2006 after her daughter's car was burned on her front lawn. "Every time we got close to tying Tarango to Countryman," Christesen recalls, "an informant would be burned"—intimidated, that is. "I began to think that our own building was bugged. I even asked the FBI to do a sweep." Tired of waiting for federal help, "we finally bought old equipment and did it ourselves." The sweep turned up nothing. Meanwhile, violence in San Juan County kept escalating, much of it apparently tied to Danny Tarango.
In January 2007, the FBI finally responded to Christesen's repeated appeals and quietly opened an investigation into whether the task force's operations were being compromised from within. Because everyone on the task force was potentially a suspect, the FBI agents told no one in local law enforcement—not even Christesen—precisely what they were doing and whom they were targeting. But after wiretapping Danny Tarango's cell-phone calls, they discovered that information about the task force was still being provided by Countryman. Christesen's suspicions were all too true: Countryman was getting his information from a state police officer named Keith Salazar, one of the unit's most trusted, experienced members. Countryman and Tarango even referred to Salazar by the code name "Candy" because the information he provided was so "sweet."
In court, Salazar later argued that he had been forced to betray his fellow officers—that Countryman had threatened, if Salazar refused to cooperate, not only to expose the fact that he had skimmed funds from the task force's kitty, but also to harm him and his family. But the cell-phone conversations that prosecutor Reeve Swainston played in court made a mockery of that claim. Calling each other several times a day, referring to each other as "bro," joking and swearing like fraternity brothers staging college pranks, Salazar and Countryman were obviously close friends who enjoyed their dirty work. Salazar eagerly provided Countryman with the names of his fellow officers, even those serving undercover. He gave Countryman pictures he had taken of them, their home addresses, their birth dates and Social Security numbers, and detailed descriptions of their cars and license-plate numbers. He also disclosed the identity of confidential informants; the dates, times, and locations of impending search warrants; the nature of ongoing antidrug investigations in New Mexico and Colorado; and other material that Countryman requested. And he did all this for just $1,000 a month from Tarango.
For his part, Countryman was the perfect middleman. As soon as he got sensitive information from "Candy," he would call Tarango and pass it along. As a result, Salazar never had to talk to Tarango or meet with him, insulating him from scrutiny. All three men used cell phones specifically dedicated to their double-dealing, creating what Swainston called in his indictment a "compartmentalized line of communication." But Countryman was more than a go-between; he also distributed some of the methamphetamine he received from Tarango, street profits from which supplemented the $8,000 a month that Tarango routinely paid him.
Christesen suspected that Tarango had turned other law enforcement officers and local and state officials, and he hoped that the FBI's investigation would uncover them. But the FBI had to cut short its investigation and move against the three men in December 2007, after agents overheard Tarango and Countryman discussing ways to intimidate and possibly harm a deputy sheriff. Among the tactics they discussed were following the deputy's wife around town, taking photos of her and her children, leaving a photo of her on her car, throwing hypodermic needles on her lawn, delivering a box filled with dying rats to the family's home, and leaving a pig's head on the front porch. They agreed that this might send her a message that "her husband needs to back off," a court document states, quoting part of an intercepted conversation between Tarango and Countryman. Further, the FBI overheard Tarango telling Countryman that he had watched the family's home at various hours, and Countryman telling Tarango that this deputy's "ass needed to be whacked."
Tarango vetoed the proposal, but the FBI had heard enough. Arrest warrants for all three men were promptly issued. But before Tarango could be served, he escaped to Mexico. When the police arrested Countryman at a Denny's restaurant in Farmington, the county seat, they found a handgun in his truck. In a safe at his home were 13 more firearms, $18,000 in cash, and almost eight pounds of marijuana.
In a sentencing memorandum, Countryman said that his heavy drinking had "clouded" his judgment and asked to be enrolled in a substance-abuse program. Countryman and Salazar pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute drugs and were each sentenced to six years in prison. Their attorneys argued successfully in court for lighter sentences because of their post-arrest cooperation with law enforcement. And this past June, for reasons that remain murky, Danny Tarango returned from Mexico. His trial is expected to begin soon.
Christesen, who is now running for sheriff in San Juan County, still fears that Danny Tarango's web of corruption may have been far broader than the public has been told. In the wake of the Countryman and Salazar arrests, the New Mexico state police's narcotics division was quietly disbanded and reorganized. The fact that the state said so little about its actions leads Christesen and others to believe that the conspiracy may have involved other, still-unnamed, corrupt cops, border patrol agents, and public officials.
But "law enforcement and the communities they serve have been irreversibly damaged" merely by the information that Salazar and Countryman gave Tarango and his Mexican associates, Christesen wrote in a statement that he gave to prosecutor Swainston. In his own statement, Swainston asserted that nine separate law enforcement agencies in New Mexico and six in Colorado had been damaged by Salazar's betrayal. "It is hard to imagine anything more frightening for a law enforcement officer than to find out after the fact that those upon whom you just executed a . . . search warrant knew you were coming because one of your own told them so," Swainston wrote in an impassioned 47-page sentencing memorandum.
"Cops hate these cases, hate to investigate and prosecute them, because it shows we're not perfect, that we're vulnerable to corruption like other human beings," Christesen says. "A Salazar looks bad for all of us. But how many other counties like ours are there in the Southwest? How can we be sure that our law enforcement system isn't being Mexicanized? I'm worried that they'll start with bribes, and end as they have in Mexico, with intimidation and murder."
Michael Hayden, director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President George W. Bush, called the prospect of a narco-state in Mexico one of the gravest threats to American national security, second only to al-Qaida and on par with a nuclear-armed Iran. But the threat to American law enforcement is still often underestimated, say Christesen and other law enforcement officials.
Last year, FBI officials tell me, the Bureau worked on nearly 2,500 public corruption cases and convicted more than 700 dishonest public servants throughout the nation. Most of them were unrelated to the cartels, and Special Agent Abbott, of the FBI's criminal branch in El Paso, says that only 15 to 30 of his region's cases so far have involved drug-related corruption among law enforcement officials. "But given the damage that can be done by just one corrupt officer or inspector," he adds, "this is an important vulnerability. We know it."