Sunday, July 21, 2024

Former US customs officer convicted of bribery for letting cars with drugs cross the border

A former United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer was convicted this week of bribery after allowing vehicles transporting illegal drugs to enter the U.S. from Mexico in exchange for large payments from criminal organizations.

Leonard Darnell George, who worked at the San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana earlier this decade, was found guilty on Monday by a federal jury in U.S. District Court in San Diego.

The United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California (USAO) said in a press release on Wednesday that George, who is now in his early 40s, was convicted of “accepting bribes to allow vehicles containing methamphetamine and other illicit drugs to pass through the border into the U.S.”

It also said he was convicted of “allowing vehicles with unauthorized individuals to pass through his lane and into the U.S. while working for two separate criminal organizations.”

George’s nickname among drug traffickers who associated with him was “el portero,” or “the doorman.”

He reportedly made his first connection with traffickers while visiting a strip club in Tijuana. In addition to methamphetamine, George facilitated the entry to the U.S. of smaller quantities of heroin, cocaine and fentanyl, according to court documents.

During a six-month period in late 2021 and early 2022, law enforcement agents and prosecutors identified approximately 19 illegal crossings that the ex-CBP officer facilitated, according to the USAO.

“George repeatedly omitted passengers and the true names of drivers coming through his lane, instead entering the names of others to conceal his criminal activities,” the office said.

He eventually aroused the suspicion of his colleagues, which led to his downfall.

While his illicit scheme was operating, George received bribes of at least US $13,000 for each vehicle he allowed to cross.

Vehicles in line to cross at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego, California.
George received $13,000 for every car he illegally allowed to pass — before raising his fee. (Shutterstock)

During his trial, a number of witnesses testified that George agreed to allow cars carrying drugs to enter the United States via his lane at the border crossing in late 2021.

“George would notify members of the drug trafficking organization when he was at work, what lane he was on, and that they had one hour to reach his lane,” the USAO said.

In February 2022, the corrupt official found himself in a tricky situation. A car with a CBP alert on it due to it being a suspected drug smuggling vehicle was flagged when it entered George’s lane at the border crossing, forcing him to refer it to a secondary inspection, which uncovered 222 pounds, or just over 100 kg, of methamphetamine.

“Undeterred, George allowed a second drug-laden vehicle affiliated with the drug trafficking organization and traveling directly behind the flagged vehicle to enter the U.S. with over 200 pounds of drugs,” the USAO said.

“Text messages sent by George the following day reveal he received approximately $13,000 for the vehicle he allowed to enter the U.S. On the same day he received his bribe payment, George purchased a 2020 Cadillac CT5 for an associate of the drug trafficking organization as a gift,” the office said, adding that he delivered it to the associate in Ensenada on Valentine’s Day.

The former CBP official subsequently raised his fee for waving a drug-laden vehicle into the U.S. to $17,000, seized text messages revealed. However, he offered a small discount for a four-vehicle deal, charging $65,000 instead of $68,000.

All told, it appears George accepted more than $300,000 in bribes. One witness told the court that he purchased vehicles, motorcycles, and jewelry with the proceeds of his illicit activities.

“Additionally, on George’s days off, he traveled to Tijuana to visit Hong Kong Gentlemen’s Club where he spent approximately $5,000 per trip,” the USAO said.

“He would stand on the second level of the club and throw cash over the balcony to the dancers below, ‘showering’ them with money. He would buy bottles of alcohol, and occasionally gifts, for dancers,” it added.

The exterior of the Hong Kong Gentlemen's Club, the corrupt customs officer's favorite spot in Tijuana.
On his days off, the corrupt official spent thousands of dollars at the Hong Kong Gentlemen’s Club in Tijuana. (Yelp)

A photograph presented during the trial offered an insight into the coziness of George’s relationship with his drug trafficking associates. It showed one of the narcos taking a selfie while wearing the ex-official’s CBP uniform jacket.

With its guilty verdict, the jury in San Diego “sent a clear message to anyone considering trading in their badge for cash,” said U.S. Attorney Tara K. McGrath.

“Abandoning the integrity of the uniform for the conspiracy of drug trafficking is a path to a criminal conviction,” she added.

George’s sentencing is scheduled for September 13.

The former customs officer faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison for partaking in bribery as a public official; life for conspiracy to import controlled substances; and 10 years on each of two counts of “bringing in certain aliens for financial gain.”

With reports from Milenio and AP 

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