Another mind-boggling corruption case out of Hidalgo County was revealed Wednesday, when a 13-count federal indictment was filed against the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Investigations in McAllen.
The DHS-OIG is tasked with investigating allegations of fraud and other crimes committed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents as well as the Border Patrol. The investigative agency, based in Washington, has thirteen field offices including McAllen.
Eugenio Pedraza, the special agent in charge of the McAllen office until he was put on leave in October 2011, and Marco Rodriguez, another agent, are charged with conspiracy and falsifying documents in at least seven investigations. The cases involved agents accused of taking bribes to allow immigrants and drugs across an international bridge in Brownsville. Pedraza and other agents falsified the documents ahead of an internal audit and a FBI investigation, according to the indictment.
Several other agents from the McAllen office are also implicated but not named in the indictment. In an initial court appearance Wednesday, both of the former agents pled not guilty, according to the AP. Their bonds were set at $50,000 each.
Interestingly, it was a confidential informant from Mexico who set the federal investigation in motion in McAllen, according to the indictment. The informant had been permitted to remain in the United States as long as he or she assisted the McAllen office in investigations. The informant assisted in the case of a customs officer who was reportedly taking money to allow immigrants into the United States. After the informant was no longer needed in McAllen, he or she was sent to work with agents at the DHS-OIG office in Dallas. Once the informant arrived in Dallas, he or she told agents about unethical behavior in McAllen, and the Dallas office reported the allegations to its Washington headquarters.
Here’s where the story gets weirder. The informant’s complaints were leaked to Pedraza in McAllen, who quickly initiated proceedings to have the informant deported to Mexico before the allegations could be investigated. Pedraza then falsified paperwork regarding the deportation, according to the indictment.
The Department of Homeland Security has been struggling to crack down on corruption among border agents. In the last decade the number of Border Patrol agents on the southern border has increased from 9,100 to more than 18,500 agents. In the rush to put more “boots on the ground,” polygraphs and other background checks were sometimes waived for new hires.
A December report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the majority of corruption cases among U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were along the southern border. The GAO made several recommendations to crack down on corruption including periodic polygraph tests of agents in the field.
During a recent reporting trip to McAllen, I was told that the FBI had reserved two floors of a local hotel for its agents from Washington while they conducted various investigations in the valley. It seemed like an exaggeration at the time. Now I’m not so sure.