|English | Español||January 21, 2018 | Issue #32|
US Customs Agents Resign to Blow the Whistle on Corrupt Superiors
By Bill Conroy
Letter from Darlene Fitzgerald (signing as Darlene Catalan) to the US Office of Special Counsel claiming federal wistleblower status (May 10, 1999)
Darlene Fitzgerald’s statement to the US Senate hearings (September 18, 2001)
Sandy Nunn’s statement to the US Senate hearings (July 27, 2001)
The train is hauling the goods that fuel the global economy: hoppers packed with coal and fertilizer, flatcars stacked with lumber and machinery, and pressurized tanker cars full of hazardous chemicals like chlorine, sulfuric acid and liquid oxygen.
Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you glimpse a blinding light, followed instantaneously by a deafening BOOM! In the next moment, a pall-like cloud of fire, poisonous fumes and smoke rips through the neighborhood, snuffing out thousands of lives.
The above movie-like scenario, unfortunately, could easily cross the line into reality today, tomorrow, or at some other future trigger moment in the high-stakes war on terrorism, according to a former federal agent who claims the government has gone to great lengths to keep a lid on her story.
Former U.S. Customs Service Special Agent Darlene Fitzgerald contends that our nation’s railroads are the perfect tools for delivering destruction to our doorsteps. Fitzgerald came to this conclusion in the late 1990s while working as a federal agent on an investigation into a major drug-smuggling operation in Southern California. The smugglers, she discovered, were using railcars to move tons of dope from Mexico into the United States.
However, Fitzgerald alleges that the investigation was “torpedoed” by the brass at Customs, without explanation. She suspects the investigation was shut down because of corruption within the federal agency.
The dope Fitzgerald had uncovered was being delivered as part of an operation run by the Arellano-Felix Mexican drug cartel; the drugs (tons of pot and coke) were being shipped across the border from a rail yard in Guadalajara, Mexico, a yard Fitzgerald claims was controlled by the cartel. The railcars moved into the United States unchecked, and then along rail routes up the West Coast—where the dope was to be retrieved by cartel operatives and sold for millions of dollars on the streets of America.
Fitzgerald, along with U.S. Customs Special Agent Sandy Nunn, a former Customs inspector named John Carman, and several other federal agents, decided to blow the whistle on the torpedoed operation, hoping to get someone within Customs or the FBI to investigate why it was shut down. Fitzgerald also says the whistleblowers have a far more serious concern.
If the cartel could smuggle tons of drugs via railroad, why not guns and munitions? And, even more frightening, she says, is the prospect that terrorists might tap into the cartel’s system to smuggle in weapons of mass destruction.
Fitzgerald says she and her fellow agents went to the FBI in the spring of 1999 to report their concerns. She also contacted the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which is an independent federal agency charged with investigating governmental misconduct.
“I have additional information concerning potential corruption that far outweighs anything in the attached affidavits/letters,” Fitzgerald wrote in a May 10, 1999, letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. “This information is something that I am very afraid of revealing to anyone in this agency (Customs). I feel that this information may very well place my life in jeopardy. I wish very much to report this to an agent in your agency, but only with my attorney present.”
Fitzgerald and Nunn allege that after they began blowing the whistle on the torpedoed investigation, their lives were turned upside-down due to the retaliation and emotional abuse they were subjected to by their supervisors. That abuse, Nunn claims in a statement she submitted to Congress, included “unrelenting retaliation, adverse actions against us, false accusations of wrongdoing, frivolous Internal Affairs investigations, surveillances, threats against us, (and) slander of our reputations in the workplace.”
In one case, Nunn alleges in the congressional statement, a fellow Customs agent involved in seeking to expose the corruption, Ruben Sandoval, “woke up and found two surveillance cameras mounted on light poles on his street pointed directly at his residence.”
“I was shocked and still am at how our civil rights were so blatantly violated by management officials within one of the top federal law enforcement agencies in the United States merely because we stood up and told the truth,” Nunn adds.
Both Fitzgerald and Nunn decided to resign from their jobs in the fall of 1999 and to go public with their allegations—after no action was taken by the FBI or the other federal agencies to which they reported their concerns.
Fitzgerald and Nunn submitted written statements summarizing their experiences to the Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services. Nunn’s statement was actually submitted in July 2001, nearly two months prior to the September 11 terrorists attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
Following is an excerpt from Nunn’s statement.
From 1998 through the latter part of 1999 … Darlene (Fitzgerald) began intense work on a major narcotics investigation involving railway tanker car shipments of tons of narcotics coming into the United States from Mexico. Darlene, a highly competent and successful agent as well as my friend, had successfully tied these tanker car shipments of drugs to the Arellano-Felix drug cartel (aka the Tijuana cartel) in Mexico.
This case was the first of its kind and magnitude in the United States. It was so significant that the Acting Commissioner of Customs called her personally to congratulate her for a job well done after her first seizure of approximately 6 tons of narcotics.
However, shortly thereafter, Darlene’s efforts were undermined when Customs management began ordering her to shut down the case and cease and desist any further investigation.
As a seasoned agent who had served as the case agent for what was described in 1991 as the “second largest money laundering case in U.S. history,” I understood major investigations and felt strongly that there were serious issues of corruption beginning to emerge, particularly when Darlene determined that several of the tanker cars, which had clearly been suspicious, were released contrary to her direction, not just once, but over a hundred times, by an unknown Customs official.
These tanker cars, which had been documented as being empty, were showing as being about 5-9 tons overweight. Based on my experience dealing with narcotics smuggling, it is my professional opinion that those released tanker cars were very likely smuggling either narcotics or possibly something more sinister, such as firearms or potential tools for use by terrorist groups within the United States.
As a special agent dealing with arms and technology smuggling cases, I even pulled up Darlene’s case files through the Customs computer, as I along with Darlene had received information from a source that there might be a connection to arms smuggling. I was subsequently placed under Internal Affairs investigation by my immediate supervisor … for doing the job I had been paid to do.
After further investigation, Darlene determined that over the past several months, well over 100 of these tanker cars with similar weight characteristics and so forth had passed into the commerce of the United States undetected by inspection and investigators. What was in those tanker cars remains a mystery.
But the fact remains that someone within Customs was clearly permitting this to happen without checking these tanker cars as required by proper Customs procedure….
In Fitzgerald’s congressional statement, submitted in September 2001, after the 9/11 terror attacks, she lays out specifically how railcars could be used in a future terrorist attack. In particular, she points to the ease with which these cars could be moved from a rail yard in Mexico and into the U.S. rail system, without ever being inspected.
Railroad officials confirm that their employees do not actually open up every railcar to ensure that what is listed on the shipping manifest is actually inside the cars.
In particular, Fitzgerald says the government needs to focus on rail tanker cars, which she says can be put under pressure, filled with volatile chemicals or bio-terror agents, rigged with explosives and detonated remotely like giant “pipebombs.”
... These (rail) cars are rarely inspected, and the smugglers are aware of that,” Fitzgerald said in her congressional statement. “... These (rail) tanker cars are the perfect instruments for a terrorist attack against the U.S. ... As the result of our investigation into the (drug-smuggling) case, we identified just how easy it would be to do this. The terrorist would simply lease/sublease a tanker car—even more easily accomplished south of the U.S. border—and pay cash to set up an account with any of the major railroads.
“Once a person has set up an account (easily accomplished with a fake ID and front company all declaring a location south of the border), all one has to do is to ‘front-end pay’ for the movement of any tanker cars, and they can be moved anywhere in the country with extreme ease. This movement can be directed remotely via the Internet or telephone.
“...These tanker cars are the metal cylindrical-shaped cars that carry anything from hazardous materials, to oil, to gasoline, all flammable….
Clearly, the U.S. government’s preoccupation with stemming a terrorist threat from abroad seems to come at the expense of focusing attention on the problem inside its borders. Neo-conservative elements of the U.S. power structure could be accused of having a vested interest in promoting the foreign terror threat in order to bolster their Pax Americana agenda.
Such a political strategy could prove deadly in the future, however. The Oklahoma City bombing drives that point home, as does the alleged plot uncovered in East Texas in 2003 that involved right-wing extremists concealing a stash of weapons and the ingredients for a highly lethal sodium cyanide bomb.
Still, Fitzgerald’s warnings can’t be discarded out of hand. Government corruption in both the United States and abroad, coupled with the merciless pecuniary preoccupation of drug syndicates, creates opportunity for a dedicated extremist foe – whether that group has foreign or domestic roots.
For example, Algerian Ahmed Ressam, a convicted terrorist, testified in a trial in New York in the summer of 2001 that terror training camps in Afghanistan included instruction on how to sabotage infrastructure targets, such as power plants, airports, military installations, large corporations and “railroads.”
Fitzgerald, in her congressional statement, asserts that the U.S. railroad system is vulnerable to being compromised from abroad. In particular, she claims that pressurized rail tankers are not being systematically checked by Customs as they cross the border.
That claim is backed up by sources within Customs who explain that there are thousands of railcars crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders daily and inadequate resources to thoroughly check each one.
In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, Customs did begin installing gamma-ray imaging devices at border crossings to scan incoming railcars. However, these devices, similar to airport scanning systems, are not foolproof – a fact that is only magnified when operator error or corruption is factored into the equation.
Further, in the case of pressurized tanker cars, special hazardous materials teams need to be called in to complete thorough inspections, an expensive and time-consuming process.
John Carman, a former uniformed officer with the U.S. Secret Service as well as a former U.S. Customs Inspector, agrees with that analysis as well.
Carman says he was among the first people within Customs to identify the railcar smuggling problem, and, along with Nunn, Fitzgerald and others, has been instrumental in blowing the whistle on the lack of attention to the issue.
“If I can smuggle drugs on these railcars, I can smuggle anything,” Carman explains. “Customs simply does not have enough time or people to inspect all of these railcars. If one or more of these railcars (loaded with explosives or biological agents) got through, it could do a lot of damage.”
That fact is underscored, Fitzgerald adds, by the vastness of this nation’s rail system.
“Now consider the fact that one can simply remotely send these giant instruments of death, simultaneously, to any one of thousands of rails spurs, virtually undetected,” Fitzgerald pointed out in the statement she provided to the Senate subcommittee. “... Now add to this the fact that once this is done, the perpetrators will be extremely difficult to trace and no suicide bombers are needed.”
Fitzgerald says rail spurs are located near major buildings throughout the country.
She adds an even more terrifying scenario: what if one or more explosive-laden rail tanker cars were to be detonated in a major urban rail yard—where hundreds of other loaded railcars are located?
“These tanker cars in general carry a plethora of hazardous material,” Fitzgerald says. “If one or more is blown up in a rail yard, it could start a devastating chain reaction.”
Next in Chapter 2:
Links between a major international money-laundering investigation spearheaded by Customs, called Operation Casablanca, and the railcar smuggling investigation, point to high-level efforts to undermine both cases.
Read the rest of Bill Conroy’s Borderline Security:
Bill Conroy has worked as a reporter or editor for the past eighteen years at newspapers in Wisconsin, Arizona, Minnesota and Texas. His investigative reporting over the past five years has focused on corruption and discrimination within federal law enforcement agencies.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism