Public Corruption on the Border
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Michael Gilliland is seen in surveillance video in
2006 waving cars through his lane at a border crossing in San Diego.
On the Southwest Border
Public Corruption: A Few Bad Apples
In the surveillance footage taken hours before his arrest, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Michael Gilliland can be seen nonchalantly waving a car through his lane at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego. He was knowingly allowing illegal aliens across the border, and he would do this several more times throughout the evening. His actions that night would earn him nearly the equivalent of his annual salary—and eventually a five-year prison term.
About This Series
Gilliland, a former U.S. Marine and veteran Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer with 16 years of experience, has been in jail since 2007. But his case continues to illustrate the pervasive problem of corruption along the Southwest border and the damage that can occur when officials betray the public's trust.
Although the vast majority of U.S. government employees working on the border are not corrupt, as one senior agent who investigates such crimes noted, “Even one bad apple is too many.”
Of our 700 agents assigned to public corruption investigations nationwide, approximately 120 of them are located in the Southwest region. We work closely with many federal agencies, including CBP and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The result has been more than 400 public corruption cases originating from the Southwest region—and in the past fiscal year more than 100 arrests and about 130 state and federal cases prosecuted.
We have 12 border corruption task forces in the Southwest, which consist of many state and local law enforcement agencies as well as our federal partners. Recently, we established a National Border Corruption Task Force at FBI Headquarters to coordinate the activities of all regional operations.
At our Border Corruption Task Force office in San Diego, Special Agent Terry Reed—who headed the Michael Gilliland investigation—points out the “Wall of Shame.” Displayed are pictures of a dozen former officials convicted of public corruption offenses in the San Diego area. They are a diverse group of men and women from a variety of state and federal government agencies. They were all in it for the money, sex, or both—a fact not lost on the drug cartels.
“The cartels have developed into very sophisticated businesses,” said El Paso Special Agent Tim Gutierrez. “Despite their brutality and violence, they use sophisticated tactics.”
The cartels actively engage in corrupting public officials. They recruit by exploiting weaknesses, sometimes gaining intelligence through surveillance methods usually employed by law enforcement. Cartel members have been known to observe inspectors at ports of entry using binoculars from the Mexican side of the border. Maybe an inspector has a drinking or gambling problem. Maybe he flirts with women and could be tempted to cheat on his wife. Maybe an employee is simply burned out on the job.
“If you’re an inspector and you are legitimately waving through 97 out of 100 cars anyway,” Gutierrez said, “and you realize you can make as much as your annual salary by letting the 98th car go by, it can be easy to rationalize that.”
“The cartels are always looking for the next Michael Gilliland,” Agent Reed said. “But using our combined investigative and intelligence gathering skills, the task force has been very successful in rooting out corrupt public officials at the border.”
Next: When Violence Hits Too Close to Home
- CBP Officer Pleads Guilty to Alien Smuggling and Bribery (8/05/10)