Federal agent tackles local crime

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, federal agencies came to realize their inability to quickly and accurately share information. Critics said this lack of interagency cooperation was a fatal flaw that failed to prevent the devastating attacks.

In response, President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 as a means of bringing together a number of federal agencies. The consolidation was made to create better communication and coordination between agencies responsible for national security.

Overseen by Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Department of Homeland Security includes the U.S. Secret Service, the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) among other agencies.

Created in March 2003, ICE is the combination of two smaller agencies-the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Customs Service. With nearly 5,000 special agents, ICE is the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security and is second in size only to the FBI.

In addition to targeting terrorists and illegal immigrants, ICE agents investigate and arrest drug runners, animal poachers, weapons dealers, money launderers, child pornographers, gem smugglers and just about anything else relating to the border and national security.

Most recently, ICE agents in San Diego discovered a 2,400foot-long tunnel used to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the U.S. The discovery of the passageway netted the agency almost two tons of marijuana.

Although such tunnels aren’t commonplace in Ventura County, local ICE agents still have their hands full chasing the crooks who prey on county residents.

Led by David Wales, the resident agent in charge of the Camarillo-based ICE offices, the team of 13 agents and two supervisors are responsible for Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

Wales’ team recently uncovered a counterfeit document mill in south Oxnard. The bust brought in hundreds of fake immigration and identity documents, including drivers’ licenses and Social Security cards. Agents also seized various equipment used to make the fake documents.

In addition, ICE agents helped investigate the prostitution ring which led to the Jan. 12 arrests of a Thousand Oaks man and an Agoura Hills woman.

Wales, who began with Custom Services in 1988, sat down with The Acorn to answer questions about the ICE Agency, as well as the responsibilities of his field office.

Q: Since ICE’s inception, has the collection and sharing of information improved?

Wales: The information that we have here is flowing better. We are more aware of different activities that are going on within the agency. I think there’s always a constant struggle to have the information as widely distributed as possible throughout the various law enforcement agencies across the country. I think that’s an ongoing issue, and I think the administration is attempting to deal with that.

Q: What are the “bread and butter” cases your
office faces on a regular basis?

Wales: I wish I could say. It varies from day to day. We’re still involved in very significant drug cases. What I think is one of the worst drugs that has hit is methamphetamine. It’s just a scourge on society, and we are taking steps to really address that threat throughout the tri-county area. We’ve been very successful doing that, working with the local authorities and state law enforcement agencies.

Q: When investigating a drug ring, how do you avoid stepping on the toes of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the FBI or local police?

Wales: We work in concert with the DEA and, when necessary, the FBI. We have memorandum of understanding with the DEA . . . We bring them in or advise them of these types of cases. We deal with the (Los Angeles) clearinghouse, which is a de-confliction center . . . It’s a state-ofCalifornia-funded operation in Los Angeles, where they do nothing but receive information from law enforcement agencies who are working cases, and they are able to tell you whether or not there are other agents looking at that case.

Q: How many cases will your field office handle in a year?

Wales: It really varies. It can be, at times, quite significant. We can be in the several hundreds of cases, depending on their nature . . . I mentioned drug cases . . . but drug cases are a very small percentage of what we deal with overall. We do strategic cases, which involve the movement of national security items that illegally come into or out of the country.

Q: Why does ICE investigate the movement of money?

Wales: We look at the movement of the money that would either come from or fund illicit activity . . . We also look at money laundering or the destruction of money in accounts to hide or obscure the true source of that money. There’s a real reason why people are into illegal activity. For the most part, it’s usually for financial gain . . . Find the money, and you can usually catch the people.

Q: What would you say has been the biggest change in the agency since you began as a special agent in 1988?

Wales: Obviously, with any administrative changes, there’s going to be some variation as far as focus of the agency, but it’s always been consistent as far as the enforcement of U.S. laws. Some may change slightly . . . But it hasn’t varied too much. It’s probably changed here in the last couple of years because of 9/11 and the threat that was made real for people in this country, and that’s something that we are trying to stop from happening again.

Q: Recently, the U.S. Patriot Act came under fire by a number of senators who believe its power is too far reaching and may be infringing on civil liberties. If the Patriot Act expires or is rescinded by the Senate, will that hurt your agency’s ability toeffectively do its job?

Wales: The Patriot Act has been an important tool for ICE.It has allowed us more authority to go out and fight the crime and combat the terrorists that are out there . . . If it were to be rescinded or allowed to expire, then I don’t think it would actually hurt our agency as much as it would some of the others. But it does allow us to gather more information, and it does allow us to do our job more effectively

Q: Are public tips helpful to your agency?

Wales: They are extremely helpful. A lot of the cases that we initiate are a result of tips that come from the public. Obviously, there are many more people out there than I have agents. In essence, if people are vigilant and if people watch and look out for one another and report things that look conspicuous or odd . . . and report that to some authority, we are all going to be better off in the long run.

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