MEXICO CITY — Hugo Miguel Ayala gets phone calls almost every day that remind him of the corruption that thrived inside El Vergel detention center for illegal immigrants not long ago.
“Yesterday a man called me from Honduras and said he would offer me $1,000 if I let his son go,” said Mr. Ayala, a new supervisor at the center. “When I say no, they say, ‘Why before, and why not now?’”
President Vicente Fox’s three-year-old campaign against corruption has achieved some success, but it still has far to go in cleaning up government bureaucracies shaped by decades of a secretive one-party regime that ruled before Mr. Fox’s election in 2000.
Officers of the National Migration Institute, Mexico’s immigration agency, have been tempted by big money to be made by smuggling migrants from across the globe into Mexico and up to the U.S. border. Illegal immigration through Mexico is growing, despite greater U.S. efforts to secure its borders and post-September 11 cooperation among the United States, Mexico, Central America and other countries.
During the first three months of this year, Mexico detained nearly 65,000 foreigners, more than double the number detained during the similar period in 2002. Most illegal immigrants discovered in Mexico are Central Americans en route to the United States. But the lucrative trade also draws customers from around the globe.
Worldwide, smugglers are earning an estimated $9.5 billion a year by moving humans illegally — many aiming for U.S. destinations, said John Torres, a senior immigration enforcement official in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In late March, the Mexican attorney general’s office uncovered a smuggling scandal and ordered the arrests of 42 current and former employees of the National Migration Institute and various municipal, state and federal police agencies. The government workers were charged with helping move undocumented foreigners through Mexico to the United States.
“Operation Cleanup,” as it was called, was the result of an 18-month investigation of a network thought to have smuggled migrants from Central America, Brazil, Cuba, Uruguay, Ecuador, India, and Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Authorities say at least “hundreds” successfully entered U.S. territory.
The purported gang apparently operated with impunity in 12 Mexican states from southern Chiapas to northern Chihuahua, from Cancun to Mexico City. The accused are said to have distributed fake documents, established safe houses and set up transportation for illegal immigrants.
Some of the officers are said to have staged arrests of undocumented foreigners and deposited them in El Vergel center, where as many as 700 detainees from around the world often are housed at any time.
Instead of deporting undocumented foreigners, the attorney general’s office said, government custodians would set the migrants free to continue their journey toward the United States. Bribes for that service ranged from an estimated $2,000 to up to $7,000 a head.
“The detention center was used like a hotel,” National Migration Institute spokesman Hermenegildo Castro said.
The former director of El Vergel — who resigned more than a year ago — and several co-workers are said to have coordinated the network from their government offices. Among those arrested were seven members of Grupo Beta, a humanitarian migrant-rescue agency attached to the migration institute and assigned primarily to Mexico’s northern and southern borders.
“This is the most important operation against public servants and former public servants involved in the illicit trafficking of the undocumented. And it is the most important for our commitment to finish off corruption and impunity inside the country’s institutions and in connection with organized crime,” Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha said of the arrests.
El Vergel and more than three dozen other migrant-holding facilities nationwide were vulnerable to corruption, in part because of Mexico’s antiquated, paper-based record-keeping system of registering and releasing detainees. The system is being computerized and new layers of supervision have been set up to prevent abuses.
Mexican migration officers are in charge of checking visas and passports at Mexico’s airports and other ports of entry. They are also responsible for the custody and deportation of illegal immigrants detained in Mexico.
At Mexico’s international airports, officers are now using machines that scan passports to detect irregularities. They also record entries and who was on duty at the time.
Operation Cleanup originated with Magdalena Carral Cuevas, the National Migration Institute’s commissioner. When Mrs. Carral became commissioner two years ago, she requested a criminal probe of her agency.
“Everybody told me that the migration center was corrupt,” she said in her Mexico City office.
The recent arrests, Mrs. Carral said, “are a signal for everyone who works in the institute that they are not going to get away with illicit activities and that we are watching.”
U.S. officials say Mr. Fox’s government is making progress. His election ended seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and Mr. Fox promised to make combating corruption a priority.
In April, a former U.S. Embassy employee in Mexico was arrested in Florida and charged with raking in at least $345,000 for selling U.S. visas from the Mexico City embassy. Julieta Quiroz is charged with conspiring to provide 180 U.S. visas to foreigners, among them suspected Colombian drug traffickers and rebels.