A veteran U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer has been charged with knowingly waving a van-load of marijuana into the United States while on duty at a bridge on the border crossing between the U.S. and Mexico in Brownsville.
Jose Luis Zavala, a seven-year veteran of the agency, was ordered to remain behind bars Monday after being brought before a federal magistrate who advised him he'd been charged with conspiring to distribute more than 3,000 pounds of marijuana.
Court papers don't reveal how long federal inspectors suspect Zavala was corrupt, but note that in November 2014 Zavala was working at Gateway International Bridge when a white van with Mexican license plates pulled up to his inspection booth for admission into the United States.
As Zavala waved the van through, it was then randomly subjected to a surprise, more in-depth inspection that was out of his control, according to court papers. The van's driver then jumped out, leaving behind a U.S. passport card, and escaped back across the bridge into Mexico.
Pot wasn't hidden
Inside the van, inspectors found a load of marijuana sitting in the cargo bay. No attempt had been made to hide the marijuana, or disguise it as legitimate cargo.
Zavala's phone was checked by investigators and contained at least three text messages they contend were part of a discussion regarding smuggling loads and payment.
The texts, noted in the court papers, appear to indicate that Zavala, 38, is a cousin with whoever texted him, and that they were working for an uncle.
"Pepe I was told by my uncle that the thing was lost," reads one of the texts after the marijuana was seized. "Where do I go or what do I say when I cross?"
The text was sent by a person who was allegedly the real owner of the passport card that was left behind in the van.
He allegedly confessed to authorities that he had rented his passport card to a drug-trafficking organization so drivers could use his identity to slip into the United States. He is identified only as a "confidential source," and was not publicly named.
Larry Karson, a retired U.S. customs service agent who is now an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown, said one way to reduce the chances of inspectors being corrupted is to transfer them on a regular basis so that they are away from longtime family-and-friend connections.
"The idea is to prevent ties that a CBP officer may have in the local community that may go all the way back to when he or she was in elementary school," Karson said. "If it was a family member or close friend who makes the offer, you listen, you'd be tempted. You start thinking, I know how to beat the system."
The flip side, is that when a U.S. law enforcement officer joins the ranks of criminals, it is like giving each of the criminals a gold coin should they ever get arrested.
"The easiest way to beat a prosecution yourself is to give up a fed," Karson said. "It is a get out of jail free card."
Customs and Border Protection released a statement noting that the overwhelming majority of its employees work tirelessly to guard the nation.
"We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks," notes the statement. "And we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigation of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off duty."
Zavala's arrest comes in the wake of other corruption arrests in South Texas, including a Starr County deputy, along with her brother, who were charged in November with being part of a marijuana trafficking group.
Amy Reyes and her brother, Bobby Lee Reyes, are accused of driving to Houston with 24 bundles of pot when they were stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint near Hebbronville.
Re: Border agent charged with waving through pot shipment
homeland sucurity should be ashamed of having an idiot like this work for them. he got caught with a text msg
wow not so bright if you ask me.i could just picture the guy at walmart not wanting to get a prepaid because the price sounds redicoulus.