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Sunday, November 30, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Drug War Aims At Crooked Cops -- Crackdown At Mexican Border Has Netted More Convictions

Los Angeles Times

NOGALES, Ariz. - Francisco Gabriel Haro was a fixture here, a clean-cut kid who played football in school and became a local deputy sheriff role model for many in this community, which sits snugly along the border with Mexico.

Then he was arrested in his squad car last March after a federal sting operation caught him carrying a small package of cocaine across a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint.

Suddenly, Haro was the latest poster boy for the federal government's crackdown on police officers willing to sell their badges to benefit the drug cartels in Mexico.

He pleaded guilty. At his sentencing, his career ruined, his future gone, he begged for mercy.

"A 10-year prison sentence," he told the federal judge, "is more than enough time for me and others in the police community to understand what I did was very wrong." Instead he was given 11 1/2 years - an extremely harsh punishment for a first-time offense.

The case against the deputy comes as U.S. law-enforcement officials are beginning to demonstrate that Mexico is not the only country with corrupt cops.

Since 1991, the FBI, working with local agencies along the Southwest border, has won 41 convictions of federal, state and local law-enforcement officers on drug charges. Twenty-six of those were obtained in 1996 and 1997 alone. And the U.S. Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are developing new programs to ferret out more problem cops along the border.

Some Washington policy-makers believe the rise in convictions helps this country in its argument that Mexico is not doing enough to clean up its own corruption. For years, the United States has complained that Mexico willingly tolerates drug traffic into this country.

Barry McCaffrey, who as director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is pushing a multinational anti-drug effort in the Western Hemisphere, has suggested that as long as the United States is being tough on its own internal corruption, it can argue more forcefully that other nations should also be tough.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said that although most peace officers "do a splendid job," the temptations for fast drug money are increasing with the tide of drugs washing across the Rio Grande.

The 2,000-mile border from Brownsville, Texas, to Imperial Beach, Calif. - a stretch with everything from congested cities to isolated desert - is prone to all kinds of drug trafficking.

"It has been said that wherever drugs exist, corruption exists," Michael Bromwich, the Justice Department's inspector general, told Congress this year.

"While I would like to believe that this bit of conventional wisdom is untrue, our experience tells us otherwise. The time, money and incentive which drug traffickers have to corrupt public employees represents a serious border problem."

To combat it, the FBI has asked Congress for increases of $3.6 million and 20 agents to follow border corruption next year.

At the Customs Service and the INS, officials have developed ways of spot-checking border inspectors. Inspectors often do not know where they will be working each day, and drug-sniffing dogs check their vehicles when they arrive and leave.

Customs Commissioner George Weise told Grassley's panel that in 1996, 68 of his agency's border employees were arrested, resigned or were fired "because of some relationship to serious or criminal misconduct."

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, acknowledging that "we cannot deny that some of our employees have been corrupted," told the same committee that her agency has boosted its Border Patrol staff by 85 percent since 1993. New training and pre-employment screening programs have filtered out 125,000 applicants who could not meet new standards.

Law-enforcement officers, whether federal agents in suits and ties or deputies like Haro in green-and-olive uniforms, have always been targets of criminals. A rookie like Haro, who was paid about $1,400 a month, can quickly pocket several times that amount for making a drug run.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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