Friday, December 18, 2009

the $200,000 customs agent

NYTimes | At first, Luis F. Alarid seemed well on his way to becoming a customs agency success story. He had risen from a childhood of poverty and foster homes, some of them abusive, earned praise and commendations while serving in the Army and the Marines, including two tours in Iraq, and returned to Southern California to fulfill a goal of serving in law enforcement.

But, early last year, after just a few months as a customs inspector, he was waving in trucks from Mexico carrying loads of marijuana and illegal immigrants. He pocketed some $200,000 in cash that paid for, as far as the government could tell, a $15,000 motorcycle, flat-screen televisions, a laptop computer and more.

Some investigators believe that Mr. Alarid, 32, who was paid off by a Mexican smuggling crew that included several members of his family, intended to work for smugglers all along. At one point, Mr. Alarid, who was sentenced to seven years in federal prison in February, told investigators that he had researched just how much prison time he might get for his crimes and believed, as investigators later reported, that he could do it “standing on his head.”

Mr. Alarid began working at the border in San Diego in October 2007. In his guilty plea, he admitted that he had started smuggling in February 2008. He was arrested three months later.

Mr. Alarid would wave in vehicles that should have raised suspicion, either because their license plates were partly covered or because the plates did not belong to the vehicle, something he would have seen on the computer screen in his inspection booth.

Before reporting to his lane, he would go out to the employee parking lot to use his cellphone, which federal agents believe was his way of telling the smugglers which lane to approach.

At his sentencing, all involved — the prosecutors, the judge, his lawyer — expressed bewilderment at the turn in Mr. Alarid’s life. But in an interview, a family member who was not part of the case said Mr. Alarid had mounting gambling debts and, despite it all, had always sought a bond with his biological mother.

Still, Judge Janis L. Sammartino accepted the government’s argument that a deterrent message needed to be sent.

“I do think that the public, for a while at least, needs to be assured that who we have at the border are 100 percent individuals of integrity,” she said. “I think you were at one time. I don’t know what went wrong for you, sir, and I hope that you attain that again.”