Richard Marosi, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
SAN DIEGO- A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer was arrested Thursday on alien-smuggling charges, the second member of the agency this week to be accused of working with Mexican-based groups to sneak illegal immigrants into the country.
Richard Elizalda, a nine-year veteran, waved through migrant-laden cars at his inspection lane at the San Ysidro Port of Entry for as much as $1,000 per illegal immigrant, according to U.S. authorities. He was arrested along with seven other suspected members of the ring, which authorities say tried to smuggle migrants into the U.S. on numerous occasions over the last two years.
This week's cases, though unrelated, underline continuing corruption at the ports of entry despite efforts to curtail it. With traditional smuggling routes impeded by increased enforcement along one of the most heavily guarded areas of the border, traffickers are seeking other ways to get their loads across, authorities say.
"The amount of money is tempting for someone who is not an honest individual," said FBI Special Agent Andrew P. Black, who supervises the Border Corruption Task Force.
Elizalda and the other accused border agent, Michael Gilliland, 44, manned inspection booths where officers are entrusted to ferret out drug and immigrant smugglers among the thousands of cars that cross daily from Tijuana. But when vehicles from their smuggling group came through their lanes, authorities said Elizalda and Gilliland would wave them through without inspecting them or asking for proof of citizenship.
Both men earn about $65,000 a year but showed signs of living beyond their means, authorities said. Elizalda drove a late model BMW and was given a Lexus by the smugglers, according to authorities and the 15-count indictment filed in federal court in San Diego. Gilliland lived in a five-bedroom home in an upscale suburb of San Diego, and a search of the home of his alleged partner turned up $500,000.
At Gilliland's home, authorities found about $18,000 worth of Iraqi currency, authorities said. The source of the money was unknown, but authorities don't believe he was involved with smuggling aliens from Iraq.
Gilliland's attorney did not return a call seeking comment. Elizalda's attorney could not be reached for comment.
Authorities have taken several measures in recent years to prevent corruption at the ports of entry at Otay Mesa and San Ysidro, the nation's busiest border crossing. Inspectors have been banned from using cellphones at work so they can't communicate with smugglers. They are also rotated regularly among the inspection booths.
But smugglers have adapted by posting lookouts in nearby buildings who use binoculars and two-way radios to direct the migrant-laden cars into the lanes staffed by their American cohorts. Elizalda apparently figured out a way to let his smuggling partners know which booth he was in by using a pager or cellphone, authorities said.
Keeping track of inspectors at 37 booths presents challenges, said Adele Fasano, Southern California director of field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Supervisors try to keep tabs on the officers, and thorough background checks are conducted regularly, Fasano said.
But with smugglers dangling large payoffs, and the flow of drugs and migrants surging, corrupt inspectors can still find ways. "Officers have all types of opportunities to breach the public trust," Fasano said.
June 9, 2006
2nd Calif. border agent jailed on smuggling charges