The Sacramento Bee, February 18, 1996

U.S. Officials Joined Mexican Drug Smugglers

By Beatriz Johnston Hernandez

Accused drug trafficker Juan Garcia Abrego, now awaiting trial in Houston, is notorious for bribing high-level Mexican officials to help turn Mexico into a major transshipment point for Colombian cocaine. Less known is his role in bribing federal officials on the U.S. side of the border.

Information gleaned from drug trials and gang insiders reveals that Abrego paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to Immigration and Naturalization Service agents and National Guardsmen to drive cocaine and marijuana in their buses past U.S. Customs checkpoints on the road between McAllen and Houston.

But Peter Lupsha, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico who has studied drug trafficking on the border for two decades, says he believes the true extent of Abrego's bribery of U.S. officials may remain hidden behind a "conspiracy of silence" aimed at preventing a meltdown of public trust.

Abrego is being held without bond in the Harris County jail on a 1993 indictment on charges of cocaine trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. His arrest and deportation to the U.S. by Mexican anti-drug agents last month caused an uproar among Mexico's reform-minded elites who want him tried first in Mexico in the hopes of gleaning information on bribed Mexican officials.

Abrego's trial in federal court, due to open on March 11, will focus little attention on corruption in Mexico and still less on corruption in the U.S. On the contrary, at least one star witness for the prosecution - FBI special agent Claudio se la O - will testify how he accepted $100,000 and a gold watch from Abrego in September 1987 as part of an undercover scheme to gain the defendant's trust and information on drug dealings.

Transcripts of he 1993 federal trials in Brownsville and Houston of four Abrego underlings, however, reveal how INS drivers would transport undocumented aliens caught in Houston south to INS detention centers close to the border. On their way back north, the agents would load the empty buses with Abrego's marijuana and cocaine loads worth millions of dollars.

"Agents were corrupted for brief periods. Once they got enough money, they decided it wasn't worth the risk, so they would stop doing it, but others came in to take their place," Peter Hanna, an FBI agent out of Houston who has focused on Abrego for the last seven years, told PNS in a telephone interview.

INS bus transfers weren't the only incidence of bribery revealed under oath. Jaime Rivas, a cocaine mule for the Abrego organization, was in charge of delivering coke to a safehouse in Harlingen and from there on a convoluted route through Houston and on to New York. Testifying at a 1991 trial in Corpus Christi of accused Abrego hitman Miguel Botello and again in the 1993 money laundering trial of Maria Lourdes Reategui and Antonio Giraldi in Brownsville, Rivas explained how the gang was able to transport between 1,000 and 1,400 kilos of cocaine each week past U.S. Customs checkpoints. In the 1993 trial he recalled how one delivery went awry at the Sarita checkpoint between McAllen and Houston.

"Graciel Contreras and Juan Bananas were in the truck. The one (agent) at the checkpoint had been paid off, and Juan Bananas was the one who knew him, so he was the one to give the signal so the truck with the coke could pass." But something went wrong and the shipment was confiscated, said Rivas, who was watching from another car behind the truck.

Although the Houston FBI investigators knew that INS agents were involved in the drug trade since early 1991, only one agent has since been tried and sentenced to 10 years without parole. Another, according to a spokesperson at the U.S. attorney's office in Houston, "failed to appear in federal court to stand trial on charges of drug conspiracy, money laundering and bribery."

Abrego's corruption of U.S. officials "goes beyond INS," Lupsha says. "Custom officials are very sensitive about the Abrego trial because some major corruption schemes could surface implicating former Customs officials. And it might go higher than local regional INS agents."

Lupsha surmises many INS agents may have been seduced by women on the Abrego payroll who would then ask the agents to "do a favor for my uncle, or my cousin." Many agents avoided getting caught by applying for early retirement.

"Clearly," Lupsha says, "there is a reluctance within the United States, as in any system, to let the dirty laundry hang out publicly. To do so would mean the drug war has not only failed in the supply side, it's failed on the demand side and in the interdiction side as well. That's very bad for public confidence."


Portland NORML notes: Federal convictions of public officials for corruption increased by more than 2,400 percent in the years after presidents Johnson and Nixon ratcheted up the war on some drug users. This is according to a chart on page 128 of "The Economics of Prohibition," by Mark Thornton, available from the Drug Policy Foundation bookstore. Its sources are the "Report to Congress on the Activities of the Public Integrity Section for 1981," p. 20, by the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the same report for 1988, p. 29. The accompanying text explains: "The 'function' of corruption is to facilitate transactions when control over transactions has been delegated to government."

Federal Convictions of Public Officials

1970 44 1988 1067

1,067 is 2,425 percent of 44.

The growth was more or less linear. Based on representative cases, 75 percent of state and local law-enforcement corruption is directly related to prohibition.

1970 40 1971 105 1972 150 1973 185 1974 220 1975 182 1976 380 1977 445 1978 410 1979 555 1980 550 1981 725 1982 670 1983 960 1984 910 1985 1000 1986 1030 1987 1085 1988 1067

Check out The Wormscan Files for more information on drug-war-related corruption in the United States. The 40 files include a mind-boggling 3.4 megabytes of news and magazine articles, interviews, transcripts and other information.


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