Border Patrol agent guarding US-Mexico checkpoint took $400 bribes to smuggle migrants

Border Patrol agent guarding US-Mexico checkpoint took $400 bribes to smuggle migrants
Following four years of steady decline, arrests of border patrol agents spiked in 2018 amid strict immigration policies under the Trump administration

Ronaldo Vidaurri Jr sped north up Highway 35 in a Ram pickup near Pearsall, Texas, after crossing the border from Mexico in March 2019. When he was pulled over by the Frio County Sheriff’s Office, deputies discovered he was smuggling five migrants.

Vidaurri later pleaded guilty to illegally conspiring to transport people across the border, but he told investigators he had help. A US border patrol agent named Rodney Tolson Jr let Vidaurri cross the checkpoint with “loads” of migrants, he told investigators, according to a plea agreement filed this week.

Now, Tolson is facing up to 10 years in prison for conspiring to illegally transport migrants from February to March 2019. Tolson, who was arrested in May, confessed to receiving $400 (£288) per person from an associate of Vidaurri. The associate, who was not named in court documents, said Tolson assisted in their smuggling operations as many as six times.

It’s unclear how much money Tolson received in total. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Tolson’s case highlights a problem that US Customs and Border Protection has faced for years: corruption among the ranks of agents guarding the US-Mexico border. While the percentage of Border Patrol agents engaged in corruption is small, “arrests for corruption of CBP personnel far exceed, on a per capita basis, such arrests at other federal law enforcement agencies,” a 2015 US Customs and Border Protection integrity report found.

Arrests among border patrol agents spiked in 2018, following four years of steady decline, and some observers say the Trump administration’s strict border policies made corruption more rampant.

“Tighter border security may further increase the level of this type of bribery,” David Jancsics, a San Diego State University professor who studies law enforcement corruption at the border, told Insider.

For his part, Tolson admitted to assisting smugglers for money for two months in 2019, court documents show. A “co-conspirator” of Tolson, a relative of Vidaurri, said the border patrol agent would assist his smuggling efforts by “waving him though the checkpoint” in Laredo, Texas.

According to the co-conspirator, Tolson would call to report “which lane and time window to use for crossing through the checkpoint,” the plea agreement says.

At one point, the co-conspirator asked if Tolson was ready to make money.

“U know it,” Tolson said in a WhatsApp social media message the co-conspirator shared with federal agents.

Their transactions would usually take place in the parking lot of a Walmart near the border, where Tolson would receive $400 per person, the documents state.

But in November 2019, federal agents caught Tolson’s co-conspirator smuggling someone past the border in a Chevrolet pickup truck. He told authorities that he had been working with Tolson.

By February 2020, Tolson knew he was under investigation. He also knew that Vidaurri had confessed to smuggling. Tolson nonetheless outlined to his co-conspirator alternative plans to get migrants across the border, such as “using the ranches to cross since he had the keys and knew where the cameras were located”. He planned for them to go on a “ghost run,” although it is unclear whether that ever materialised.

When the co-conspirator asked Tolson in March 2020 whether he wanted to smuggle people up north, Tolson said he wished he could but that he was being sent away for work training. “I think they are messing with me,” he wrote via WhatsApp.

In May, Tolson was arrested and indicted by a grand jury. He signed his plea deal on 7 July, admitting to conspiracy to transport an undocumented migrant within the United States.

It is unclear when he will be sentenced.

Washington Post