There are weak spots in the Texas-Mexico border big enough to smuggle large quantities of drugs through. But the U.S. Customs Service doesn't want to hear about the holes, especially from whistleblowers who say those holes are kept open by corrupt Customs officials.
Customs has been hearing those complaints privately from its own employees and from other law enforcement agencies for months. But the frustrated whistle-blowers say they are harassed and the alleged culprits are tipped off."No one trusts anyone down here," one former Customs agent told our associate Dean Boyd. "The other agencies don't even trust us."
Credibility is not a strong suit for Customs offices in Texas these days. In two prior columns we have reported on allegations of corruption among Customs workers.
One Customs employee wrote to the Treasury Department inspector general in September. The employee described how Customs internal affairs people reacted when they were informed of allegations of close relationships between Customs workers and known drug smugglers, "I had the evidence on the table right under their noses. They apparently knew already and I assume that either they didn't care or just were not intending to do anything about it."
Even an assistant U.S. attorney in Texas has complained. In a March 1990 memo, he described his meeting with one Customs internal affairs investigator who knew about the allegations of corruption. ". . . he looked tired and upset. It was my personal opinion that he was getting no support from Internal Affairs, and was being coerced into forgoing the investigation."
Former Customs special agent Louis Smit says he was retaliated against when he reported possible corruption to higher-ups. In a federal personnel grievance hearing, Smit protested the harassment and won his case.
A regional Customs spokeswoman, Donna Dela Torre, told us that the agency encourages its employees to report allegations of internal corruption to the office of internal affairs. But, when told about retaliation suffered by those who do, she offered no alternatives.
Customs has shifted some management people in Texas since the allegations have begun to mount.
Oran Neck, the chief of Customs investigations in Brownsville, Texas, was reassigned last March. Originally he was to be demoted to a smaller office in Oklahoma City, but Customs said the action was routine, not disciplinary. Then Neck called Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, who pulled strings for Neck in the name of constituent services. Neck was reassigned to be the Texas chief of Operation Alliance, a multi-agency drug interdiction task force on the border.
One Texas agent told us, "When the allegations involve management, internal affairs only pays lip service to investigations. It's an ol' boy network gone cockeyed."
CORRECTION - In a recent column on the threat of terrorism, we reported that there are 5,000 Iraqis in the United States on student visas. That figure was incorrect. There are approximately 5,000 Kuwaiti students in the United States. There are approximately 8,500 Iraqis here, and 1,439 of them are on student visas.