Border Agents Are Finding Drugs

Border Agents Are Finding Drugs
Posted by FoM on March 06, 2002 at 07:12:05 PT
By Michael Janofsky
Source: New York Times
As he drove his white Honda Civic into the United States border checkpoint here from Mexico, his engine overheated, sending up plumes of steam and catching the attention of customs agents who, to this point, had not suspected that he was much more than a man who did not take very good care of his car.But as they talked to him and began asking questions, they decided, as they do in these post-Sept. 11 days, to run his name through a databank. 
That was where the bad luck came in. Mr. Garcia, 20, who lives here, was wanted in neighboring Pima County for failing to appear in court on a traffic violation, a misdemeanor. As he was escorted into a holding cell and placed in handcuffs, his car was the least of his worries.Mr. Garcia was hardly the most dangerous fugitive to pass through Nogales, one of the busiest checkpoints along the Mexican border, with more than 20,000 people a day traveling north by foot, car and truck. But he exemplified life at border checkpoints now that the United States is on a heightened security alert for terrorists and weapons, and checkpoints have more personnel and equipment than ever, with more help on the way from 1,600 National Guard troops.Kevin Bell, a spokesman for the Customs Service, said the efforts had stopped "a number of people linked to terrorism" whom the F.B.I. and other federal agencies have interest in. But more often, he said, the added resources are helping catch other quarry, including fugitives like Mr. Garcia, illegal border crossers and, most of all, people transporting illegal drugs.Here and elsewhere along a border of more than 1,900 miles from Brownsville, Tex., to San Ysidro, Calif., drug seizures have been soaring. Mr. Bell said the flow of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine seemed to slow for about a month after Sept. 11, but resumed at record levels."Drug traffickers can't sit on their loads forever," he said. "They're running a business. They have payrolls to meet."It is not clear whether the seizure rates are climbing as a result of intensified efforts by federal agents, the economics of drug dealing, the brazenness of traffickers or a combination of factors. In any case, border crossings are no longer the wave- through they used to be, with a few simple questions and a quick visual check by an agent at a gatehouse or pedestrian checkpoint.Now, drivers are routinely asked where they are from, where they are going and what is in their car, questions that can take a minute or two versus the 20 to 30 seconds they once took. Some drivers are asked to pop their hoods and open their trunks for further inspection, causing backups of 45 minutes or longer. Pedestrians also face more questions and are more likely to be patted down."We're doing more interviews, looking in more trunks and hoods, talking to more people," said Joe Lafata, the port director. "The whole process is taking longer, but it's much more thorough."Inspectors have always had the discretion to pull a car out of line for a second, more complete inspection. That, too, has intensified. Agents are looking for drugs by tapping on door panels, peeking under carpets and opening boxes. Sometimes the agents use drug-sniffing dogs, and sometimes the names of the driver and passengers are checked for outstanding warrants, the case with Mr. Garcia.Patti Valenzuela, 32, who works in a Mexican art store in Tucson, watched with a scowl as agents poked around inside her car. She said she had crossed the border about 20 times in the last three months, and this was the first time she was detained for a secondary search."It makes you feel safer," she said, a nod to the realities of terrorism. "But in a way, I feel bad. It makes me feel like I did something wrong."Agents spent about 10 minutes with Ms. Valenzuela's car and found nothing unusual. But with increasing regularity, that is not always the case for other drivers. At the Nogales port of entry, which includes two crossing points for vehicles, two for pedestrians and one for a railroad line that now has a scanning device to X-ray every train car, drug seizures have set records for every month since October.The total for that five-month period through February, 206 seizures, was a 121 percent increase over the 93 seizures in the same period a year earlier.Nationally, seizure of illegal drugs at all 301 ports of entry  airports and seaports as well as border checkpoints  increased by 17.1 percent in the last three months of 2001 compared with the same period the year before, Customs Service figures show.Here, it is not so much the rising numbers that agents say is surprising. It is the traffickers' creativity."We're seeing mothers, fathers, grandmothers, even kids coming over with drugs," said Patrick Christian, a customs agent. "It's hard to comprehend and a lot more rampant than we realized."Other agents said they had found drugs in gas tanks, radiators, false floors, tires, door panels and, in the case of one recent female pedestrian, a specially made girdle that hid several pounds of methamphetamine.The agents here have found no terrorists. But hardly a day goes by when they do not find drugs. "We are real cognizant of the fact we have to keep that weapon of mass destruction from coming in," said Mr. Lafata, the port director. "That's everybody's greatest fear. But we're real proud of the fact we're seizing so many drugs. It has been our anti- terrorism dividend."Note: This was not Cuauchtemoc Garcia's luckiest day.Complete Title: Border Agents on Lookout for Terrorists Are Finding DrugsSource: New York Times (NY)Author: Michael JanofskyPublished: March 6, 2002Copyright: 2002 The New York Times CompanyContact: letters nytimes.comWebsite: Articles:Drug Czar Says Nogales Tunnel was Potential Terror Can Be Done at the Border?
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Post Comment