Their job is to keep our country safe by stopping smugglers from breaching our borders. But San Diego County has the highest number of corruption cases involving federal officers in the nation, according to the FBI.
It's amazing what lengths people will go to as they try to enter the U.S. illegally. They'll stuff themselves like sardines inside hidden compartments or sweat it out in the trunk of a car. Others will even wrap themselves up in carpet, hoping no one unrolls them until they get past the federal officers.
And it's not just people. It's also drugs -- a lot of drugs.
That is why federal officers, like Border Patrol Agents and U.S. Customs and Border protection officers, are so vital.
"I mean these are incredibly dedicated people who have dedicated their lives to protecting this country and keeping it safe," Special Agent in Charge Keith Slotter said.
But FBI agents say there's a growing problem at the border. More and more federal officers are turning corrupt and the FBI's Border Corruption task force is doing everything possible to stop it.
"To prove that they had intent to allow someone or something into the country, that shouldn't be coming into the country, is a very difficult thing to do because all they are doing is waving them in," Special Agent Terry Reed said.
Reed investigates corrupt federal officers. He says in some cases, the officers are planted by drug cartels. In others, smugglers use temptation to turn good officers bad.
“They're dangling money, they're dangling sex, items of value in front of these officers, so they can get their illegal cargo into the U.S.," Reed said.
Even the most seasoned officers can fall prey to those temptations -- like Mike Gilliland.
The retired Marine worked at the Otay Mesa port of entry for 16 years. Gilliland's wife was also a CBP officer and he was so well respected, supervisors trusted him to train rookies.
"So you felt confident that he would guide you in the right direction. He'd be there for you," U.S Customs and Border Protection Supervisor Angelica De Cima said.
But FBI agents say Gilliland began leading a secret life after meeting Marina Perez De Garcia and Aurora Torres Lopez.
"Both of these women ran separate smuggling cells but they knew of each other’s existence," Reed said.
FBI video shows Torres Lopez, with her child, meeting with a woman she thinks is a customer who wants to smuggle a family into the U.S. The woman is actually an undercover FBI agent, who is told each family member will cost $4,000.
"Cars that were loaded up with 15 plus people would be entering the U.S. by these women or people working for these women through Mike's lane," Reed said.
In undercover video, you can see Gilliland working at his booth. He reaches inside and turns off the plate reader, which documents each vehicle that enters the U.S. Moments later a dark SUV, filled with illegal immigrants, drives right through -- unchecked.
Other undercover video shows Gilliland entering a smuggler's South Bay home. 13 minutes later he leaves with what investigators believe is a bag filled with money.
Gilliland admitted to taking up to a $120,000 in bribes over a two year period.
“It was pretty shocking to know that the guy that you worked with side by side everyday was undermining the hard work you do day in and day out," De Cima said.
FBI agents say the corruption cases continue to climb each year, in part because there has been a dramatic increase in hiring. In fact, the border workforce has literally doubled in the past few years.
"Do I think the problem is going to get worse? Absolutely," Kathryn Butterfield said.
Butterfield is the Special Agent in Charge for internal affairs at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. She says between October 2008 and September 2009, more than two-dozen federal officers were arrested on corruption-related charges nationwide.
“As we do a better job of enforcing the borders and we continue to increase our manpower, we are going to see more cases of corruption,” Butterfield said.
That's why she says applicants have to go through an intensive screening process that can last six months -- a process that includes interviews, polygraph tests and background checks.
"Every employee is subject to a periodic update of their background investigation every five years so the process never stops," Butterfield said.
FBI agents say they know the screening process is working for the most part, by looking at the vast majority of men and women who are protecting our borders.
"99.9 percent of these agents are incredible at what they do. You've got that very very small fraction out there that chooses for whatever reason to go the wrong way," Slotter said.
FBI agents want to point out that many of their investigations start with a tip from a witness and in many cases that witness is a federal officer who noticed something unusual about another officer.