A chronicle of reprisal, cronyism and corruption
in the U.S. Customs Service
By Bill Conroy
Prologue to a book published by Narco News
February 18, 2004
The 1999 cyber-fi movie “The Matrix” includes a pivotal scene in which the lead character, Neo, is given a choice between waking up in his bed and continuing on with his life as it has always been, or staying in “Wonderland” and seeing just “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
That scene goes a long way in explaining my experience in digging into the “wonderland” that is the U.S. Customs Service. After more than two years spent falling into the “rabbit hole,” I still don’t know how deep it goes, but I can no longer pretend that the rabbit hole doesn’t exist.
Customs’ historical charge has been to safeguard the integrity of the U.S. border. The federal agency has been tasked with enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws and international agreements related to trade, commerce, drug interdiction and national security. Each year, Customs officials collect billions of dollars from import duties and other fees, and process millions of land, air and sea passengers.
The U.S. agency can trace its roots back to 1789—making it the nation’s first federal law-enforcement agency. Customs carried out its vast mission as part of the U.S. Treasury Department from 1875 through 2002. However, that all changed with the enactment of legislation in late November 2002 that created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
In the new department, Customs operates as part of the Directorate of Border and Transportation Security. Within the directorate, oversight of Customs’ operations falls under the purview of two bureaus: the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Customs inspectors and canine enforcement officers are under the direction of CBP while Customs’ investigative, intelligence, air and marine operations are under the supervision of ICE.
Some 22 agency puzzle pieces have been brought together to form the Department of Homeland Security. However, blending the diverse cultures of these various federal agencies—and their nearly 200,000 employees—into a cohesive operation is likely to take years.
As a result, it is useful to pay attention to the cultures of the affected agencies, as it may offer insight into what the future holds for the nation in terms of homeland security. To that end, this book is an exploration of the culture of one of those agencies: the U.S. Customs Service.
The genesis of this book was a series of investigative stories I wrote for publication from the fall of 2000 through the end of 2002 that detailed disclosures of alleged mismanagement and corruption within U.S. Customs.
Because events are still playing out as this book goes to press, by the time you read these pages, there will undoubtedly have been new developments—particularly in relation to DHS as well as the litigation outlined in the book. But the purpose of the book is not to provide a definitive history of the U.S. Customs Service. Rather my intention is to peer through the veil of spin cloaking a complex and important government agency. This book should be thought of as a looking glass that can offer you a glimpse of the darker regions of a centuries-old federal law-enforcement agency that has now been plugged into a new super department charged with protecting the security of the United States.
This book is not written from the perspective of a journalist working inside the Beltway. I live in San Antonio, a couple of hours by car from Mexico. In addition, the primary sources for this book are not powerbrokers working the Washington, D.C., political scene. Rather, they are a diverse group of individuals who are spread across the country serving on the frontlines of law enforcement—many assigned to key field positions along this nation’s borders.
Along with reviewing stacks of legal filings, internal Customs documents, congressional testimony and other public records for the investigation that led to this book, I also interviewed dozens of individuals, many of them whistleblowers—including current and former Customs supervisors, inspectors, intelligence officers and investigative agents. The book explores corruption allegations affecting Customs’ operations in Texas, Louisiana, Arizona, California, New York—and beyond, into the very heart of the nation’s capital.
Sources within Customs came out of the woodwork as I dug into this project, with each tip leading to new contacts that helped drive the investigation. I had to deal with many sources on background or on a not-for-attribution basis. They feared, I felt legitimately, retaliation if exposed. Still, in those cases, I secured documentation or additional sourcing to support any allegations. On more than one occasion, that documentation showed up in my mailbox anonymously.
The allegations raised by these whistleblowers boil down to an assertion that Customs is operated through a “good-ol’-boy” system of management that has perpetuated a culture of reprisal, cronyism and corruption.
The story of the U.S. Customs Service that is drawn out in the pages to follow is ongoing—even as Customs is being rebranded as part of the Department of Homeland Security. To come anywhere near a conclusion, many more journalists will have to jump into the rabbit hole. But if you’re interested in one writer’s view from inside that rabbit hole, read on. I promise nothing more than the facts—and the truth as far as I can see it.
Chapter 1 – Investigation Derailed
Chapter 2 – The Belly of the Snake
Chapter 3 – Shooting the Messenger
Chapter 4 – “The Racist Manifesto”
Chapter 5 – The Hydra
Chapter 6 – Green Quest
Chapter 7 – Quid Pro Quo
Chapter 8 – Reckless Driving
Chapter 9 – Firestorm
Chapter 10 – Swept Under the Rug
Chapter 11 – Politically Connected
Chapter 12 – From the DEA to “Homeland Security”
Chapter 13 – Airline Passengers At Risk from DEA Drug Sting Shipments
Chapter 14 – The Dysfunctional Anti-Drug Agencies
Epilogue – At the Threshold of Conscience
Bill Conroy has worked as a reporter or editor for the past eighteen years at newspapers in Wisconsin, Arizona, Minnesota and Texas. His investigative reporting over the past five years has focused on corruption and discrimination within federal law enforcement agencies.
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