Drug Hide-and-Seek on Mexico's Border

Drug Hide-and-Seek on Mexico's Border
Posted by FoM on January 24, 2000 at 07:56:34 PT
By Scott Shane, Sun Staff
Source: SunSpot
Here at the busiest border crossing in the world, 41,000 cars travel every day from Mexico to the United States.Some of them are carrying drugs. All U.S. Customs Inspector Robert Hood and his colleagues have to do is figure out which ones.Strolling 24 lanes of seething, stinking traffic, Hood scans for clues -- a newly painted panel on an old car, possibly a sign of a hidden compartment; a jumpy driver whispering to a passenger; the acrid smell of a solvent intended to foil drug-sniffing dogs.
"It's a big thrill when you stop someone and realize, `Gotcha! There's a load,' " says Hood, a former high school history teacher who has been with the Customs Service for 12 years. One secret of his success, he says, is avoiding stereotypical thinking about smugglers: "I had a 70-year-old guy in a Honda Accord last month with 18 pounds of cocaine in his gas tank. I had a family in a van with marijuana stuffed in the seats and the kids sitting on it."Inspectors seized more drugs than ever last year along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, and some U.S. officials note the tonnage stopped as a measure of their success. But others say the numbers more likely reflect the growing flood of narcotics from Mexico, which supplies two-thirds of the cocaine and, by some estimates, as much as one-third of the heroin consumed in this country."If a drug trafficker decides to increase his drug volume over the border, seizures are going to go up," says Peter Andreas, a Harvard University political scientist who has studied the border around San Ysidro, between the cities of San Diego and Tijuana. "To continue to insist that seizures are a measure of progress is ridiculous."Most of the cocaine and heroin that ravages Baltimore, shattering families and fueling theft and violence, arrives by car and train from New York City. But before the drugs reach New York, they cross the U.S. border, and the chances are greater than ever that they cross from Mexico at a place like San Ysidro.The Mexican cartels emerged in the 1980s chiefly to transport drugs for far more powerful Colombian producers. But during the 1990s, as U.S. and Colombian law enforcement pressure squeezed the Medellin and then the Cali cartels, Mexican drug organizations eclipsed their Colombian rivals, emerging as the major powers in the world drug trade."These Mexico-based criminal organizations have rapidly become the primary entities responsible for distributing drugs to citizens of the United States," Thomas A. Constantine, then-director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told Congress last year. He said the Mexican cartels' turf spread during the 1990s from the western United States to the East Coast, giving them virtual control of the nationwide drug trade.Residents of drug-troubled neighborhoods in cities such as Baltimore often ask why the government can't stop narcotics at the border. The scene at San Ysidro is a vivid answer.On the Mexican side, on a steep side road lined with shops and a taco stand, several people gaze down at the border's permanent traffic jam. A few others slouch against the fence atop a bridge above Interstate 5 on the U.S. side. They seem idle. They are not.They are sentinels of the drug cartels, the "spotters" who study search tactics and note lazy and corrupt inspectors. When inspectors and their drug-sniffing dogs are diverted temporarily to a suspicious car, they pass the word to their bosses via pager or cell phone: Send a load now.On the other side in this round-the-clock chess game, U.S. border agents patrol in the exhaust fumes. Hood, an upbeat man with a neat beard and wire-rim glasses, is renowned for his uncanny sense of who is a smuggler.He knows the tricks: Smugglers "shotgun" four or five cars loaded with drugs at the same time. Or they send "decoys," easy-to-find bags of marijuana or cars rigged with telltale signs but no drugs, to draw personnel off the checkpoints while valuable loads of cocaine are sent across."It's a game of hide-and-seek. They're trying to beat me. But I'm going to get their load," says Hood, who recently joined the customs unit at the San Diego airport.Border inspectors' vigilance has prompted the cartels to try alternative methods: tunnels dug under the border; smugglers crossing the desert with drug-stuffed backpacks; personal watercraft carrying loads up the coast at night; even hollowed-out surfboards, paddled from a Mexican beach into U.S. waters.But the big volume, most experts believe, is hidden in the unending stream of traffic. Every day, in addition to the 41,000 cars, 20,000 people walk north across the border, some of them carrying drugs. Four hapless smugglers were caught at San Ysidro 16 months ago with 8 pounds of cocaine concealed in their shoes.Cesar E. Trevino, a former San Diego lawyer who ran drugs north and money south through San Ysidro in the mid-1990s, says the Mexican drug exporters consider seizures an annoyance but not a threat."It's just a business cost," says Trevino, who cooperated with prosecutors after his arrest and is in the federal witness protection program. "They can't close the borders. It's like a piece of thin sheet metal, and the cartels are shooting BBs and pellets into it. Some loads get stopped, but plenty get through."The task of border officials has become more daunting as legal trade has swelled under the North American Free Trade Agreement and pressure increased to avoid traffic backups."If we're looking for a needle in a haystack, the haystack's gotten a lot bigger," says Special Agent-in-Charge Edward W. Logan, who oversees customs operations in San Diego and Imperial counties.Mexican Drug Lords:U.S. and Mexican authorities have made little progress against the ruthless Arellano-Felix cartel, which profits from virtually every load of drugs crossing at San Ysidro. The Arellano-Felix brothers have lured into the trade the sons of well-to-do Tijuana families and recruited San Diego street gangs to steal cars and kill informants. In 1996, Arellano hit men killed Tijuana's federal police chief; in 1997 they shot and wounded a Tijuana newspaper editor who had reported on the cartel.Three of the Arellano-Felix brothers have been indicted in the United States, and one has been on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list for two years. But by encrypting their communications, terrorizing subordinates into silence and paying off legions of Mexican officials, they have evaded arrest.The Arellanos and other Mexican drug lords often move cocaine from Colombia to Mexico in huge quantities. U.S. Coast Guard vessels found 118 bales containing 3 tons of cocaine off the Mexican coast last month, after an 8-ton seizure from a fishing boat in June and a 10-ton seizure from a shark-fishing vessel in August.But to move drugs from Mexico into the United States, the cartels break the loads into small packages carried by low-paid, expendable couriers driving cars bought at auction."Most of the mules don't know much," Logan says. "They're kids, homeless people, convicts. They may know only that they were paid $500 to drive this car across, leave it in this parking lot and walk away."Recognizing that most drug seizures can only nick the cartel -- especially when bulky, hard-to-hide marijuana accounts for most drugs seized -- U.S. authorities have focused increasingly on the money flowing back to Mexico.At San Ysidro, inspectors regularly set up checkpoints to search southbound vehicles for drug cash, aided by a "money dog" trained to sniff out currency."The biggest money seizure I've seen?" says Customs Inspector David Lighten, one of a dozen officers manning a southbound checkpoint. "It was a gold-and-white Mercury Villager with $1,275,000 in cash. There was money in the seats, in the half panels, everywhere."To fool the spotters watching from the nearby bridge, Lighten says, "we'll announce a break and leave." When the spotters relay to the money couriers that the coast is clear, "we pop right back out and catch them," he says.The Smell of Money:But money is even easier to hide than drugs, and it can be wired or laundered through legitimate businesses. Customs officials at all the California-Mexico crossing points seized less than $5 million last year, a fraction of profits from the border drug trade.It was money laundering that lured Trevino, the now-disbarred lawyer, into the drug trade. A former stockbroker from a respected family who counts among his relatives a former San Diego mayor and a current Mexican congressman, Trevino, now 39, used a connection with a prominent San Diego bail bondsman to build a criminal defense practice around the drug trade.The scale of drug profits was a revelation. He recalls the day an arrested drug courier brought him his fee in a shoebox, $15,000 that had just been dug up."You could still smell the dirt on it," he says.One day in 1993, Trevino stuffed $700,000 in drug cash into the trunk of his white Mustang and headed to Tijuana with his cousin. They breezed across the border at San Ysidro, hired an armored car to carry the loot and drove around Tijuana for hours in search of a banker to launder the money, Trevino says."Two guys in suits and ties in a convertible with a Brinks truck following them," Trevino recalls. "It was comical. We were so naive."He laundered many more loads of cash, becoming far more sophisticated about the border. He paid an associate to watch the southbound lanes at San Ysidro and send him coded pager messages -- 666 when inspectors were on duty, 777 when the coast was clear.When Trevino learned that U.S. investigators were onto him, he fled to Mexico and spent the next three years -- until his arrest in Panama in 1996 -- working with traffickers associated with the Arellano-Felix organization. Federal prosecutors and court records confirm his knowledge of drug and money-laundering operations.By Trevino's account, most of the cocaine crossing at San Ysidro begins its journey from Colombia in aircraft that drop plastic-wrapped bales into the sea in an area of international waters known as "the Scorpion Triangle." The Mexican cartels pay the Colombians about $800 per kilo (2.2 pounds) of cocaine; the price rises to $9,000 a kilo in Tijuana and to $16,500 or more in Los Angeles."The money is not in the product. It's in the transport," Trevino says. That's because moving a multiton load from the ocean drop to a U.S. stash house is a complex, risky operation that requires months of planning and millions of dollars in upfront costs. The smugglers must buy or rent fishing boats, equip them with radio and radar equipment, and pay captains and crews to retrieve the floating bales of cocaine.The fishing boats often travel in pairs, Trevino says; if patrol craft approach, the decoy boat flees to draw police away.The drugs are often stored in the hold under a load of fish or shrimp, he says, and moved to the beaches south of Tijuana at night using inflatable Zodiacs. By then, "jumpers" have been hired to drive the cocaine over the border.Endemic Corruption:The passage is smoothed at every point by payoffs to Mexican police and other officials. Such bribes are so routine, Trevino says, that the rare attempt to move a load without paying off authorities -- "a la brava," in cartel slang -- is seen as foolhardy."If they catch you with a load and you didn't work with them, they're going to beat you," Trevino says. "Then they're going make you buy the load back from them."On the U.S. side -- where a border inspector can earn well over $50,000 a year -- corruption is far less common, but exists, Trevino says. He says his associates paid $25,000 to $35,000 to corrupt U.S. inspectors for agreeing not to inspect a single, designated car. A crooked inspector can double or triple his salary by accepting a few bribes a year.Trevino's account is supported by testimony from senior federal anti-drug officials and by the occasional prosecution of inspectors of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and customs for accepting bribes. An INS inspector at San Ysidro was charged in August with allegedly accepting $350,000 in bribes for waving through his inspection lane vehicles carrying 2 tons of marijuana and 23 illegal immigrants.Aware of the threat, U.S. authorities have moved to pre-empt border corruption. At San Ysidro, some inspectors roam freely among the waiting northbound cars, while those who sit in inspection booths are shuffled unpredictably from lane to lane. Smugglers can no longer be certain that an inspector they have paid off will be assigned to a particular lane.Such tactics can reduce corruption. But it is not so easy to stem the flow of drugs across the border to the point where the impact is noticeable on the drug corners of U.S. cities.Logan, the Customs special agent in charge in San Diego, says the "drug war" metaphor has led to an unrealistic expectation of final "victory.""This is not a war. This is a law enforcement action," Logan says. No one expects that policing will eliminate burglary or bank robbery, he says."Are we individually frustrated that we can't stop smuggling?" Logan asks. "I'm sure all agents and inspectors feel that at some time. But we feel a sense of satisfaction at what we do accomplish."Andreas, the Harvard political scientist, says the border guards are easy targets for the frustration of a country whose cities are devastated by drugs. But the blame is misplaced, he says."If they got twice as good at what they do," he says, "it still wouldn't affect drug use in this country."SAN YSIDRO, Calif.Originally Published on Jan 24 2000 SunSpot is Copyright  2000 by The Baltimore Sun, a Times Mirror Newspaper.Related Articles:Seeing Results on the Border - 1/23/2000 Contest of Wits at U.S. Border - 1/18/2000 
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Comment #2 posted by FoM on January 24, 2000 at 20:54:43 PT
Hi J Christen-Mitchell!That's Good! Thanks! LOL!Good To see you too!Peace, FoM!
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Comment #1 posted by J Christen-Mitchell on January 24, 2000 at 19:35:06 PT:
Scientists have developed the latest use for hemp. They are putting it in automobile tires. (that's nothing new, Mexicans have been doing that for half a century!)ok, a little hemp humor.
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