Mexico: Crimes at the Border

Terry Reed

Terry Reed

Terry Reed joined the FBI as part of the Border Corruption Task Force in 2004.

Terry Reed joined the FBI as part of the Border Corruption Task Force in 2004. The first big corruption case to cross his desk was that of Michael Gilliland, a San Diego-based U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer now serving five years in federal prison. In this interview with correspondent Lowell Bergman, Reed reveals details of two separate two-year sting operations that exposed Gilliland and another U.S. customs officer, Richard Elizalda. The investigations show that both men began intimate relationships with women in the smuggling groups and that Gilliland received tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to wave through illegal immigrants during his work shift. “Depending on the size of the vehicle, you could have 10, 12 people in the car, so times four cars, 48 people, $1,000 a head – that’s $48,000,” Reed explains of the amount Gilliland could earn in one evening.

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

Q: How did the corruption case of Michael Gilliland start?

A: The Michael Gilliland case started in June 2004, when we received information about a corrupt inspector at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry [in San Diego] from a confidential informant. It wasn’t specific. It didn’t name Michael Gilliland by name nor did it name any particular smugglers by name. The allegation simply was that there is an official at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry matching a certain description, which they provided, and [the official] is working with the smuggling organization. Starting there, we began to investigate who that might be, and slowly, we started coloring in the dots. Unbeknownst to us, DHSOIG [Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General] also had an investigation going on. They also received an allegation in June 2004; so those two investigations were running concurrently. Over time, we started filling in pieces to the puzzle, but it wasn’t until November 2005, when we received yet a third allegation of corruption at Otay Mesa, that a lot of pieces started falling into place. We were able to identify Michael Anthony Gilliland as the officer working with two independent smuggling groups, who were smuggling through the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. We combined all three investigations into one, and soon thereafter, in June 2006, we arrested everybody.

Q: You say confidential informant. What did the person say? That there’s simply an inspector who’s corrupt?

A: Well, it depends on which thread you’re talking about. The initial allegation was that this was a white male who goes by the name “El Guero,” who is an officer at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. That’s all we had.

Q: El Guero?

A: I think it means “the white guy” or “the blond” – someone fair-skinned. It’s a nickname, and that wasn’t a lot to go on. Certainly not enough to run out and make an arrest that day, so we began looking at who might meet the description at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. We narrowed it down to a subset of people, and Michael Gilliland was one of those people. However, it wasn’t until November 2005 that we started getting very specific information about smugglers: names, descriptions of vehicles, actual times they would be crossing the border. That really started to focus our investigation in on Michael Gilliland because these vehicles were all being admitted by him and he matched the descriptions. To confirm our theory, we conducted an undercover operation. We had a cooperating witness smuggled from Mexico into the United States through one of these smuggling organizations.

Q: So you got someone to have themselves smuggled into the United States?

A: Yes. We conducted an undercover operation and the very first step was to place a call to Aurora Torres. An undercover FBI agent called Aurora and said, “Hey, I’ve got someone I need smuggled from Mexico into the U.S. I got your name from a friend. Can you help me out?” She obliged. She did more than oblige. She said, “You know what? Let’s not talk on the phone because someone could be listening. Let’s meet at McDonald’s, and we’ll talk face to face about all the details.” And that’s exactly what happened.

A: We set up a meeting with Aurora at the McDonald’s in Chula Vista, not even a half-mile from where she lives. Aurora shows up and greets our undercover FBI agent, has her child with her and sits down. They have a very specific conversation about the smuggling operation that she’s managing and that she has a corrupt officer working at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. They talk price. They talk timing, and then the meeting concludes. It’s all captured on video and audio. It’s hard to refute the facts here. We have it every step of the way. We have it with Aurora. We have the cars being admitted by Michael Gilliland. We have wiretaps where they’re all talking together and making arrangements. The evidence in this case is overwhelming.

Q: One of the things that’s fascinating about this whole situation is that these smuggling operations are, in a sense, little start-up organizations, with not very experienced criminals running them.

A: You’re right. I think there are individuals who luck into the circumstance of having a corrupt officer working with them. In the case of Marina Perez de Garcia [one of two smugglers who worked with Gilliland and was convicted of human smuggling charges in 2006], , when you go back and look at the public records, she says she was coming across one day, [she and Gilliland] engaged in a conversation and struck up a relationship that went beyond that of a casual border crosser. When you look at what she’s been able to do with that relationship, members of her family might view her as a rock star, somebody who was able to generate a significant amount of income for her and her family.

Q: How do these small operations generally work?

A: From a process standpoint, it’s a pretty simple business model. You have people who man the phones, tracking calls from sponsors looking to have people smuggled into the United States. Once they have reached an agreement on price, date, time, the individual being smuggled is stashed at a house on the south side of the border – cued up, if you will, sometimes by the hundreds, waiting for their opportunity to cross, whether it’s through the hills, in a trunk or – in the cases we’re talking about today – a corrupt officer. Once those people are ready to be crossed, they’re loaded into vehicles, and those vehicles are brought through the border.

A: On the north side [the U.S. side], one of two things happens. Either those people are taken to a stash house, where final payment is made by their sponsor and the person is released, or the load cars continue up to Los Angeles or some other major metropolitan city to the final destination of those people being smuggled. From an overhead standpoint, it’s a more simple process than dealing with a large drug cartel because they’ve got to manufacture, produce and move the product. In this case, the product is self-directed. It’s people, and they’ve just got to be smart enough to show up at the right place at the right time.

Q: So if it’s happening at this micro level, it’s pretty hard to quantify how widespread it is?

A: Yes. I have no number to give you. If I had a number that was accurate and I could back up with details, I would give it to you. But quite frankly, I don’t have it.

Q: How much money did you find in the house of Marina Perez de Garcia [another co-conspirator]?

A: We found approximately $60,000 in cash stuffed underneath her bed, strewn about all over the floor. There was no sense of organization or anything.

Q: And in Mike Gilliland’s house?

A: In Mike Gilliland’s house we found approximately $5,700 in cash.

Q: Any sense whether Aurora or Marina have properties or money stashed somewhere, other homes?

A: I have no evidence of them having any property or assets in the United States. If that were the case, [the property and other assets] would have been attached to the indictment, and we would have attempted to seize them. Such as the property for Aurora, we attached; and the property for Patricia Santamaria [another convicted co-conspirator in the Gilliland case whose home was also used as a load house to hold migrants], we attached. If they have property in Mexico, I don’t know.

Q: And Mike Gilliland has property in the United States.

A: He does have property in the United States; he does.

Q: That he didn’t have to forfeit?

A: Michael Gilliland received a $200,000 fine, and that’s probably one of the largest fines you’ll ever find coming out of the court system down here in the southern district of California. That’s a pretty hefty fine.

Q: We understand there was the use of both sex and money to corrupt Mr. Gilliland.

A: Well, who knows what goes on inside bedrooms, right? All we know is from what Marina Perez de Garcia and Michael Anthony Gilliland have said in public documents. I believe Marina Perez de Garcia indicated that she had some kind of a romantic social relationship with Michael Gilliland. It started off that way, and it evolved into a relationship defined by money to further his greed so they could bring people into the United States.

Q: And you had surveillance on Gilliland where he got off work and goes to see Ms. Torres, I understand.

A: Yes. There was one occasion in, I want to say May 2006, where we surveiled him going to Aurora Torres’ home. He arrives in his pick up truck. He would get off at 8 a.m., and he drove his pick-up truck over to her house. He walked in empty-handed and came out carrying a white plastic bag.

Q: Lunch?           

A: He might say so. I think, though, the evidence would suggest otherwise. Michael Gilliland has pleaded guilty to accepting over $100,000 in bribe money, and I would suggest to you that inside that bag was actually money.

Q: The tactics used to compromise him and other inspectors, it sounds like an espionage operation – sexual relationship, which right there puts him at risk, and then money to follow.

A: Well, he was a willing participant. I mean Marina Perez de Garcia and Aurora Torres put themselves out there. Whether or not they were dangling themselves out there in the hopes of satisfying Michael Gilliland’s sexual desires, or if they developed a friendship, you’re gonna have to ask those guys. But the relationship started somewhere, and I would suggest that it probably wasn’t immediately business related. It was probably based on something else.

Q: And you knew he was waving people through.

A: Right. The smuggling groups work differently. They were independent smuggling organizations, yet they knew of each other’s existence and they operated differently. With Aurora Torres and her smuggling crew, she was the only person allowed to drive a vehicle through Michael Gilliland’s lane. So she would bring a load car through. She would dump it just north of the border and then repeat the process. And she would get as many people through as she could within Mike’s schedule. Marina Perez de Garcia was a little different. For some reason, Mike allowed her to have multiple drivers and so in that scenario they would caravan through the port, sometimes four or five cars at a time.

Q: And he’s making how much?

A: He pleaded guilty to accepting over $100,000 in bribe money and when you break down the math it works to approximately $1,000 per person. The exact number? You’re going to have to ask Michael Gilliland.

Q: You think he made a lot more than that?

A: I can’t be sure what he made. I know what he pleaded guilty to and that was approximately $100,000 in bribe money.

Q: But there’s this one incident where you see a convoy going through, right?

A: Yes.

Q: Twenty people or more?

A: Depending on the size of the car you could have 10, 12 people in the car, so times four cars, 48 people, $1,000 a head, that’s $48,000.

Q: In one evening?

A: One evening.

Q: That’s almost his annual salary.

A: Getting pretty close. For most officers, that kind of money is not tempting because they’ve got character and they’re not going to allow themselves to succumb to that temptation. But for Michael Gilliland, it was a tremendous temptation. He jumped at the opportunity, and he benefited himself through his own position.

Q: This wasn’t the only case that you’ve investigated related to this, right?

A: Correct. There was a second officer who was arrested in the same week as Michael Gilliland. His name was Richard Elizalda, and he worked at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which is here in San Diego County. It’s about 6 or 7 miles from the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. San Ysidro is the world’s busiest land-border crossing. It’s got 24 lanes of traffic, and it’s running 24 hours a day. Richard Elizalda worked there for a number of years before we were able to, similarly to the Gilliland case, infiltrate the smuggling organization, identify all the players and arrest them in the week of June 6, 2006.

Q: Same tactics, sex and money?

A: Again, you’re going to have to ask Mr. Elizalda about what goes on in his bedroom. But I think we know through interviews and court documents that he was involved in some kind of romantic relationship with the principal smuggler who goes by the name Raquel Arin. In that case, we had luxury cars, expensive jewelry, extravagant trips – they were burning through a lot of money in the furtherance of their relationship. Having said that, when we searched his house we also found approximately $30,000 in cash. So there was a lot of money being generated as part of that operation as well.

Q: And in the Aurora Torres case, how much money did you find?

A: Quite a bit of money. When we searched her house, we found nearly half a million dollars in U.S. currency stuffed inside a case in her bedroom.

Q: And the penalties aren’t as severe as with smuggling drugs. I noticed in the Gilliland case, for instance, he received five years possibly with time off for good behavior and the codefendants have three years or less.

A: Depending on which codefendant you’re talking about. In the case of the principal smugglers, I think Marina Perez de Garcia and Aurora Torres both received over three years (41 months) in corporal punishment. So it’s a judgment call. Would I personally like to see them serve more time? Absolutely. But, unfortunately, we don’t write the laws.