Mexico: Crimes at the Border

Edward Archuleta


Edward Archuleta is a special agent investigating corruption with the Customs and Border Protection Office of Internal Affairs based in San Diego.

Edward Archuleta is a special agent investigating corruption with the Customs and Border Protection Office of Internal Affairs based in San Diego. In this interview with Andrew Becker, Archuleta recalls events leading up to the arrest of Michael Gilliland, a veteran and well-liked U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer, who was convicted of accepting bribes from a human smuggling ring at the US-Mexico border. He also describes how an alphabet soup of federal agencies is trying to combat the growing numbers of U.S. border corruption cases associated with human smuggling. The interview took place in San Diego on March 28, 2008, and has been edited for clarity.

Q: Tell me a little bit about Michael Gilliland’s generosity -- not just at work but outside work.

A: There’d be stories that I’ve heard of and that I believe 100 percent. Mike was the type of guy that, if you were moving, he would loan you his truck, and he’d come out there and help you move. My significant other is an ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] special agent, and she has a story about Mike. She was working a late shift one time and she was hungry, and Mike was going to eat … and he gave her food. He said, “Here, take it. I know you’re hungry.” I knew that Mike would do something like that; whatever he could give you, he’d give you. He was very generous. 

Q: What was the reaction at the port of San Diego after Gilliland was arrested?

A: I believe that many of the people were in disbelief and dismay. So many stories had flowed. I had heard so many rumors -- that they made a mistake, that Mike was set up. … I still hear rumors and I look at people and I know where it comes from. But if you’re going to have FBI special agents, OPR [Office of Professional Responsibility] special agents, Department of Home Security Office of Inspector General agents making an arrest, you can be sure we’re not coming here on a whim or a hunch. We’re pretty sure.
But I got people who said, “Man, Ed, can you believe it?” People felt betrayed and hurt and angry -- especially a lot of the old-timers who have worked side by side with Mike. They were very angry. Other people would look at me and say, “Look at what you did to Mike!” like I did something versus what Mike did.

Q: How has your view of Mike Gilliland changed?

A: I think that you can respect the things that he did, the years of service he gave to the country, his military experience, his generosity. You can respect those things about a person. What you can’t respect is the betrayal to everyone and to this country. You can’t respect that. So, as a person, you disassociate and say, “You went bad, and now you’re going to go to jail.” And that’s where I was.

Q: Can you talk about why an agent like Gilliland would turn the way he did?

A: I think that you have to look at society in general. And you have to look at the temptations that are out there. The port, like everything else, is a microcosm of society. You have people who are disgruntled, who don’t like their job. You have people who, someone offers them money, and they take it. They may be in bad marriages, and they take the temptation of being with another woman. There are many things that can make a person go bad. 

Q: Take me back to the time right before the arrest. How did you prepare for that?

A: There are two things about Mike. He’s a big guy. I’ve seen him fight. I’ve seen him do what he needs to do. So I was very nervous, to be honest. It could go either way. I said either he’s going to fight us, or he’s just going to say OK, the jig is up. People have different reactions when they know the jig is up. And we had to prepare for both, and the best way to disarm him.

The day of the arrest, we were here in the watch commander’s office [at the port of San Diego], discussing what was the best course of action. And Mike came off his shift on the line and literally walked by us, with the door open, and could see us all. I don’t even think Mike was aware of us here. Walked right past the hallway. I actually motioned, and [FBI agent]Terry [Reed] walks out there and says, “Mike, can you come here for a second?” Mike doesn’t know Terry, and the first person he knows is me. So he looks at me, and he says, “Hey, Eddie, what’s going on? How are you?” I’m like, “Hey, Mike." And that’s when I grabbed his arms and said, “Mike, you’re under arrest.” I put the handcuffs on him, and Herb Kaufer, supervisor for OPR, took his weapon. It was that quick. We thought the best course of action was to move quickly for the safety of everyone. You almost want to catch the guy off guard if you can.

Q: What was his reaction when you put the handcuffs on him?

A: First, we started to disarm him, take off his duty belt, everything that he had on him, to make the arrest. And Mike says, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” At that point I saw all the blood rush out of his face, a completely white complexion. He got weak in the knees; he started to wobble, and I said, “Get a chair; we need to sit him down.” So we got a chair; I mean, we’re talking a buff guy, great-shape guy, and you see him just get weak in the knees, and it touches you, you know? So I sat him down in the chair, and he started to sweat profusely. I think he knew it was no use saying, "Hey, what’s going on?" I believe Terry was the one who said it to him: “You’re under arrest for alien smuggling.” I went and got a paper towel and wet it, and I put it over his forehead. I said, "Mike, everything’s going to be OK. Everything’s going to be OK.” And he said to me, later, “Thank you for treating me that way. Thank you for treating me with the respect and dignity that you did.” 

Q: And what did you do after that?

A: We transported him to the main FBI building in San Diego. But first we had to wait until he was able to walk. You’re looking at a man who’s despondent, who’s looking at his entire life before his eyes, his career, everything. When he was able to regain his composure, we stood him up. We actually leaned him up against a wall for a little bit so he was able to walk, and walked him from here to the parking lot behind us, probably about 100 yards, and we sat him down. And my boss says, “You ride with him. You have the connection with him; you knew him.” We put him in the car. He was breathing heavy. I again tried to reassure him and said, “Mike, one day you’re going to look back, and this is all going to be in the past. I mean, what happened has happened, and now we have to look forward.” He put his head down, and he closed his eyes. And he just sat there. He didn’t say a single word from here to the FBI building, which is about a 30-minute drive.

Q: What happened at the FBI building?

A: I get him into the FBI interrogation room. You have to remember, it was a large operation, and many other people were being arrested at the time so we’re trying to coordinate the bodies, where they’re going to go, when they’re going to be interviewed.  But I stayed with Mike. Myself and the OIG supervisor stayed with Mike, and that’s when I looked over at him, and he looked over at me, and I said, “Mike, I know that you can basically beat me up or, you know, hurt me. But can I take these cuffs off you, and you can sit here? And he said, “Ed, I would never hit you. I would never hit you.” I said, “OK, buddy, I’m going to take these cuffs off you.” So I did. I took the handcuffs off him, and he and I chatted for a little bit.

Q: What’s the saddest part of all of this for you? 

A: That’s a tough question. You’re looking at so many levels of sadness. The most difficult part for me was the fact that I like the guy. That I really admired his ability to learn the customs law, his ability to work, his generosity with people, his ability to help anyone who needed it. And the fact that I felt betrayed, because I’ve done what he has done, and I’ve worked those late hours. And, you know, I swore an oath and I kept it. And to see a whole man’s life change with what he did is just hard to take. It’s one of the most difficult cases I’ve ever had to do -- arresting somebody I liked, on a personal and professional level. 
It was very difficult for me, and it’s still difficult for people who work at this port. I can tell you they’re still in disbelief about the whole thing. But, talking to my significant other sometime after the arrest, she said, “It’s never the people you expect that are going to go bad. It’s the people who are smart, who are intelligent, who look at life and get disgruntled.” And maybe she’s right; I don’t know. 

Q: What are your concerns about how many more Mike Gillilands are potentially out there?

A: Every person here has their own decisions, morals, upbringing, and we do the best to hire those types of people. Is there somebody that can go bad? Sure. It can happen anywhere, in any profession. And that’s why we in Internal Affairs exist, and that’s why the Board of Corruption [Task Force] exists. We do the best we can to make sure people are doing what they need to do, and that’s why we’re here. And that’s why I’m happy to be with the Customs and Border Protection Office of Internal Affairs. The men and women who work here, in my personal opinion, are fantastic. I mean, are you going to get a bad apple? Sure. The majority of the people here are hard working, fantastic people. And you have to give them a lot of credit for what they do, the amount of hours that they put in, the job they do. It’s a difficult job, and, you know, I take my hat off to them.

Q: How important has it been to expand the work of Internal Affairs?

A: First of all, Internal Affairs is a must. We have heard of narcotic agencies or smuggling agencies literally targeting Border Patrol, targeting Customs, so they can gain the ability and the knowledge. We know that we’re being targeted, and we need someone here to be able to look into people inside, do the backgrounds on them, and be the watchdogs or the eyes of the government. We know that it’s a continual battle. We’re hiring over 6,000 Border Patrol agents this year. That’s 6,000 people. Statistically, what do we have? People from different social, economic, financial backgrounds. I mean, you’re going to come up with a [cross-]section of society. And again we reach the question: [Are] some of those people bad? Possibly. But we’re going to do the best we can to make sure that we get them.

Q: Doesn't hiring more agents just going to increase the potential for corruption?

A: These smuggling organizations want to get their product through, whether it be human beings or drugs or narcotics, and they do whatever they can. They’ll build tunnels, sophisticated tunnels. And if they can corrupt an inspector, a Border Patrol agent, it’s that much more power for them. I have seen things in my career. I’ve seen dogs cut open, and drugs stuffed in them. I’ve seen corpses with narcotics stuffed in them. It’s not above these types of people to try to approach someone, and if they think they can flash a smile, invite them to get a drink or something, and corrupt them, they’ll try.

Q: Have you ever been approached?

A: See, when they approach you, it’s not overt. It’s not going to be, “Hey, you want to make some money?” It’s going to be maybe a gal coming through the port of entry in a bikini, OK? On a hot day, she gives a little smile, kind of like, “Yeah, just let me through.” A little flirt, OK? And if, for example, and this is all hypothetical, you have an inspector who works a port of entry, and you can have a gal who has talked to him every morning -- just “Hi, how you doing?” -- there’s a little smile, and maybe she notices he’s receptive to it. Maybe he says, “Hey, let’s go have a drink sometime afterward; let’s go have some lunch; let’s go have a cup of coffee.” It begins from there.

Q: So how did it start with Gilliland?

A: You’d have to ask Mike. I can tell you that I truly believe, and this is me talking, that Mike was disgruntled. He was a very disgruntled officer. 

Q: Why? What happened to him?

A: You’d have to talk to him. I mean, the only one who knows why he did what he did is him. We can look at the facts, and we can be disappointed, and we can be sad; we can be angry. But Mike knows why Mike did what he did.

Q: Over the course of the whole investigation, were you focused just on Gilliland?

A: No, you focus on the whole smuggling organization. Who corrupted Mike? Who made him do what he did? We went after them, and we arrested them. They’re important to us. I personally was focused on Mike.

Q: We talked a little bit about the Border Corruption Task Force, the FBI, Internal Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General -- all creating this complicated alphabet soup of agencies responsible for security and corruption at the border. Does that really work?

A: This is only my personal opinion, but 9/11 changed a lot of things. After 9/11, the alphabet soup even increased. Different agencies in some sense doing the same thing? Sure. Could we merge into maybe a more streamlined agency? I would love that on a personal basis, to have one corruption agency looking at it. We are an alphabet soup. I mean, you look at the task force; you have the FBI, OPR [the Office of Professional Responsibility], CBP [Customs and Border Patrol], the Office of Inspector General (which is in essence the watchdog of the Department of Homeland Security). We have a human smuggling agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I mean, we have the whole conglomerate. I wish that we would streamline it and put it back into one agency looking into the corruption, but you’re not gonna' do that. Everybody wants their piece of the pie. Every agency wants to do something. So, yeah, there is some frustration, sure. 

Q: So how well is this system working? 

A: As an agency, we’re all working very well together. We do share a lot of information, and that’s the great part about the task force, that the ability and resources we have to look into corruption have grown so much. We can do things that we couldn’t do specifically with CBP or just with the FBI. The knowledge the people bring to the task force is incredible. 

Q: Yet you said before that you’d like to see one streamlined agency? 

A: You have to understand that there are many levels of an investigation right now. When an allegation is made, it goes to the Joint Intake Center, in headquarters. Right now, the way it is set up, the Office of Inspector General gets the first right of refusal. They will look at an allegation and decide, OK, we don’t want it, or we do want it. If they don’t want it, then they’ll give it to the Office of Professional Responsibility, which is where I used to work, and they will do the investigation. If they don’t find any corruption but they find some type of policy and procedure [irregularity], they’ll send it down to Internal Affairs. The great part about the task force is that we can take anything that we want, and if we need to immediately look at it, we will, because we have all the agencies being represented in one task force looking at everything they can to stop corruption.