EL PASO, Texas — She lived a double life. At the border crossing, she was Agent Garnica, a veteran law enforcement officer. In the shadows, she was "La Estrella," the star, a brassy looker who helped a drug cartel make a mockery of the U.S. border.
Martha Garnica devised secret codes, passed stacks of cash through car windows to her helpers and sketched out a map for smugglers to safely haul drugs and undocumented workers across the border. For that she was richly rewarded. She had two homes, including a spacious one with a built-in pool; owned two Hummers, a Cadillac and a truck; and vacationed in Europe.
For years, until an intricate sting operation brought her down in late 2009 at age 43, Garnica embodied the seldom-discussed role of the United States in the trafficking trade.
Cartels based in Mexico, where there is a long history of corruption, increasingly rely on well-placed operatives such as Garnica to reach their huge customer base in the United States. It is an argument often made by Mexican officials — that all the attention paid to corruption in their country has obscured a similar, growing problem on the U.S. side of the border.
The cartels have grown so sophisticated, law enforcement officials say, that they use Cold War-era spy tactics to recruit and corrupt U.S. officials.
"In order to stay in business, the drug trafficking organizations have to look at different methods for moving product," said Thomas Frost, an assistant inspector general in the Department of Homeland Security. "The surest method is by corrupting a border official. The amount of money available to corrupt employees is staggering."
Officials say the cartels recruit U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees like Garnica to help move drugs, guns and people through border checkpoints. The cartels target workers who are susceptible to their pitches of easy cash, the officials say.
"It's no different from spy agencies," said James Smith, head of the inspector general's investigative unit in El Paso. "They look for weaknesses. Sex is a biggie. Alcohol, drug abuse, financial woes."
New recruits brought in by people like Garnica get tested, and with each test they pass it becomes more difficult for them to refuse, he said.
In late August, Garnica's double life ended. U.S. District Judge David Briones sentenced her to 20 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to six counts of drug smuggling, human trafficking and bribery.
She was, in the words of prosecutors, a "valued asset" of the crime syndicate La Linea based in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, directing the movements of at least five men, four of whom are in prison or dead.
"Everybody makes mistakes," she said in court, wearing handcuffs and an orange prison jumpsuit. "I take responsibility for my mistakes."
Garnica's saga — pieced together from hundreds of pages of court testimony, tape-recorded conversations, and interviews with border officials, investigators, undercover agents and members of the judiciary — underscores the enormous challenge facing the United States as it tries to curtail the $25 billion-a-year business of illegal drug trafficking.
Corruption is on the rise in the ranks of U.S. law enforcement working the border, and nowhere is the problem more acute than in the frontline jobs with Customs and Border Protection, according to federal investigators. Garnica's stiff sentence represented a rare victory in the struggle to root out tainted government employees. She had been under suspicion since 1997 but was not indicted until November.
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Homeland Security statistics suggest the rush to fill thousands of border enforcement jobs has translated into lower hiring standards. Barely 15 percent of Customs and Border Protection applicants undergo polygraph tests, and of those, 60 percent were rejected by the agency because they failed the polygraph or were not qualified for the job, said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who oversees a Senate subcommittee on homeland security.
The number of Customs and Border Protection corruption investigations opened by the inspector general climbed from 245 in 2006 to more than 770 this year. Corruption cases at its sister agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, rose from 66 to more than 220 over the same period. The vast majority of corruption cases involve illegal trafficking of drugs, guns, weapons and cash across the Southwest border.
"We have in our country today a big presence of the Mexican cartels," Pryor said. "With about 50 percent of the nation's methamphetamine and marijuana coming through Mexico and about 90 percent of the cocaine, there is a huge financial incentive for cartels to try to corrupt our people."
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin said the rise in investigations might correspond to the growth in personnel.
Corruption of "customs officials all over the world has been a perennial problem of border inspection and border enforcement," he said. "What we haven't seen is a vast conspiracy in the work force."
Still, Frost said, it takes only a handful of dirty government workers on the inside to make millions for the cartels.
"It would be naive to think a $1 billion smuggling industry would allow itself to be dependent on one or two corrupt employees, or if you eliminate that corrupt employee that they won't try to corrupt someone else," he said.
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There was always something about Martha Garnica that just didn't feel right.
As early as 1997, colleagues had suspicions about the assertive young mother of two who worked seven years as an El Paso cop before joining the U.S. Customs Service. (Her division became part of Customs and Border Protection in 2003.)
Garnica had a pattern of filing questionable workplace injury claims and socialized in bars popular among drug dealers.
"There was an air about her that made her suspect," said Ed Abud, an internal affairs officer at Customs and Border Protection in El Paso who was involved in the investigation.
Garnica's adult daughter and attorney declined interview requests. In court, her attorney pleaded for leniency and counseling, saying Garnica had been the victim of abuse by a family member and a boyfriend.
Abud said he now believes Garnica transferred to the federal agency with an eye toward criminal smuggling activities.
"She came on board probably with the main purpose of trying to exploit the border for herself," he said recently. "She figured, 'What's in it for me?' "