Mexico: Crimes at the Border

Andy Black

Andy Black

Andy Black heads the Border Corruption Task Force in San Diego.

FBI Supervisor Andy Black heads the Border Corruption Task Force in San Diego.
He tells FRONTLINE/World correspondent Lowell Bergman how the lucrative business of human smuggling is subjecting U.S. border officers to an increased risk of corruption. He also discusses the fallout from the arrest of Michael Gilliland, a veteran border inspector convicted of participating in a human smuggling ring on the U.S.- Mexico border.

Black responds to those who say the human smuggling business is not a national security threat. “This nation is only as secure as its borders,” he says. “And we know that corrupt officials who are allowing vehicles in unchecked have no idea what’s entering this country, whether it’s a potential terrorist, a convicted murderer, a convicted rapist or drugs.”

This interview took place April 1, 2008, in San Diego. It has been edited for clarity.

Q: (Lowell Bergman): Why are we now seeing more corruption among U.S. public officials along the border in human smuggling cases?

Black: There is more pressure on the other side of the border from the smuggling organizations to elicit the help of a corrupt border official for a number of reasons. The fence and wall have gone up. It’s more difficult for aliens to come across the border. Legislation creates different penalties for smuggling individuals in compartments. So if you have a corrupt inspector or a corrupt border patrol agent working for you, you have access to this country and it’s guaranteed.

Q: So the penalties in the United States for putting someone, let’s say, in the trunk of a car or secreting them somewhere inside a vehicle where they might suffocate are much more severe than if they just simply drive them across the border?    

Yes, those cases will be prosecuted and the smugglers know that. They look for the path of least resistance. If they can get a corrupt inspector working for the organization, they can smuggle aliens, drugs and contraband into this country. Additionally, there is an increase of law enforcement on this side of the border since 9/11 so the pool of individuals who are susceptible to corruption has grown.

Q: The potential for finding someone who might be susceptible has increased simply because of the mass hiring that’s gone on?

Yeah, that’s a fair assessment.

Q: And the increased physical security of the border, the wall, means that more value is put on trying to get a corrupt official to let you through?

That’s a fair assessment and characterization.

Q: Do you have any sense of how widespread this corruption is?

We consider it a serious problem and one that’s not going away in the immediate future. The Border Corruption Task Force’s job is to work together to address a corruption problem. We’re a reactive task force. We identify corrupt inspectors and corrupt border officials, and we try to remove them and prosecute them. But the problem isn’t going to be solved until the government finds a way to hire people who are less susceptible to this type of corruption and puts security measures in place to make it more difficult for corrupt inspectors and border officials to succeed. The vast majority of individuals on the border come to work every day and do a very good job. But all it takes is one Michael Gilliland or Richard Elizalda working next to them to undo the efforts they make to secure the borders.

Q: In terms of the Michael Gilliland case, he was a former marine, a popular long-time employee and a leader among his peers. If he can make basically his annual salary in one evening, that’s a pretty big temptation.

The temptation on the border is overwhelming. These smuggling organizations know that there’s tremendous money to be made. They watch for border officials who are perhaps susceptible. Anyone less than honest is going to be tempted and is going to succumb to that type of temptation. It was a surprise to many that Michael Gilliland was a corrupt inspector. He was very popular at the port. He was very charismatic. He trained some of the inspectors. But the temptation for him was too much.

Q: How big a success was the Gilliland case for your task force?

It was a very significant case. As you’ve seen on the surveillance, there’s footage of Gilliland just waving cars unchecked through his lane. Anyone could have been in those cars. We see this as a serious security issue for this country – the length of time he had been employed as an inspector, the number of vehicles that were passing through his lane, taking him off that line was critical. It also sent a message to the hardworking inspectors in that port of entry that this country is not going to tolerate corruption, and it validates the job that they’re doing.

Q: But there were peculiar circumstances in the Gilliland case that led to his arrest. Obviously one was connecting the dots of the different leads, but also the fact that you had leads at all.

Correct. These are complex investigations. While the smuggling aspect, the smuggling components, may not be sophisticated, these unremarkable criminals were able to get a border inspector to work with them. [Gilliland] had the expertise. He knew how to avoid detection. He knew and was familiar with the sophisticated techniques that federal agents use to investigate corrupt law enforcement. And he did his best to protect his organization. He was at the top of that organization. It wasn’t the smugglers.

Q: Because he was the free pass.

He was the free pass, and he gave the orders.

Q: We are told that there is friction between Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. There is also traditional friction, to a certain extent, between the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI. Do all of these agencies with their different jurisdictions make your job more difficult?

I can say that in the tightly knit group of federal agents who work on the Border Corruption Task Force, we’re able to put most differences aside and work for the common good and the common mission. A lot of it is based on the personalities of the agents who have been brought together. They take their work very seriously and they work very well together. They’ve had years developing that trust. I know that there have been problems in the past and there are problems that continue in the upper levels of management. Those issues aside, we work very well together.

Q: In the best of all possible worlds, you would have unified control over investigations of corruption on the border. But right now there is really a kind of alphabet soup of agencies with jurisdiction.

There are a number of agencies out there with jurisdiction over corruption. Does putting it under one lead agency or one investigative agency make things more efficient? Oftentimes it does. The problem comes ,when you have agencies that aren’t part of the task force working independently. You have deconfliction problems. Right now we don’t have that. Who knows if we’re going to have more investigative agencies down the road. Right now they all participate on the task force.

Q: The word “deconfliction,” I’ve only heard that in law enforcement circles. Where does that come from?

It comes from a situation of protecting the integrity of competing investigations. You don’t want a situation where you’re working one investigation on a particular subject like Michael Gilliland. Two years down the road you find out that another federal agency has been working Michael Gilliland, and you end up disrupting each other’s investigations, wasting resources. So there’s a memorandum of understanding where the various agencies working corruption in the San Diego area have to notify each other when they open an investigation on a particular individual.

Q: And all the agencies are involved.

Correct. And surprisingly, it works effectively. We haven’t had a problem.

Q: There isn’t really a task force like this anywhere else along the border, is there?

Most of the FBI field offices along the border do have some variation of a task force working with other agencies. I don’t know that any have as many members as this task force does.

Q: Do you have any sense in your discussions with your colleagues or your predecessors whether the problem has gotten worse or has changed?

The consensus is it has increased.

Q: Corruption?

Q: Correct. Corruption – the level of corruption investigations has increased. I can see it just in the number of cases we work and the growth and resources that are being utilized by the Border Corruption Task Force. If you ask me to put a number on it, I can’t. If I could identify the corrupt border officials, we would have our job made a lot easier.

Q: The penalties for aiding and abetting aliens illegally entering the United States don’t compare to, say, drug trafficking penalties.

Drugs have been perceived as a much more serious, more harmful violation. There is a tendency to look at individuals who are being smuggled into the country as less of a threat. From our perspective, particularly following September 11, we see it as a national security issue when we’re involved with corrupt border inspectors. They don’t check the vehicles that are coming through. They don’t know anything about the individuals who are being smuggled through their lanes. They don’t know if these people are convicted felons. They don't know if they are smuggling contraband. They are motivated by money. And there is no check on individuals coming into the country.

Q: So you’re telling me, let’s say, that al Qaeda, which has some pretty intelligent people involved in it, could potentially arrange to have one of their people picked up at a hotel in Tijuana, as long as he could pass for a Latino, and smuggled into the United States?

What I’m saying is this nation is only as secure as its borders. And we know that those corrupt officials who are allowing vehicles in unchecked have no idea what’s entering this country, whether it’s a potential terrorist, a convicted murderer, a convicted rapist or drugs.

Q: And the cost for doing this, for getting someone driven through the border?

In an air-conditioned vehicle, sitting upright? Anywhere between four and five thousand dollars.

Q: And it’s happening every day?

Every day.

Q: Given these pressures – the increased physical security of the border, the wall, the deployment of more forces along the border. Does this mean there is more money in human smuggling now?

I think the smugglers see it as less risk. They are less likely be prosecuted. And if they are prosecuted, they are less likely to receive stiffer sentences.

Q: The penalties are more lenient for human smuggling versus drug smuggling.

Correct. Correct.

Q: And the money has gotten better?

The money has gotten better.

Q: The way it was explained to us was that in the past you could either run across the border or you could walk through in a rural area. But with the increased security now you need a guide, a coyote, or someone who has access to a corrupt agent.

Correct. People still come across in remote areas. But it’s becoming more popular to utilize the services of a corrupt official. We also can’t rule out groups that utilize effectively counterfeited documents.

Q: Those are prevalent as well?


Q: So that I understand the economics of this, it’s not that somebody comes to the border with pockets full of cash. They are paid for by people on the U.S. side of the border?


Q: And if the smugglers don’t get you through the first time, they’ll keep trying to get you across?

It’s called a guaranteed pass through. If the group doesn’t successfully get you across, they’ll try again the next day or the next day. Once you’re successfully crossed, then they’ll accept payment.

Q: They don’t get paid unless you get across?

That’s correct.

Q: So the four or five thousand dollars you’re talking about – you basically get as many air-conditioned rides as you need until you get across?

That’s a fair assessment of the situation.

Q: And generally speaking, the penalties for the driver may range from being caught and released, to eventually getting caught enough times to warrant a prosecution, but under laws that are not that severe.

Not in relation to smuggling drugs across or smuggling individuals in compartments. Clearly not.

Q: So the key here is that you don’t want to appear to endanger the life of someone you are smuggling by putting them in a trunk or some confined space. As long as you don’t do that – if you’re basically up front, you can try almost as many times as you want.

That’s quite an incentive for these groups. They know there is a lot of money to be made with very little risk at the other end.