Why Borders Don't Stop Illegal Drugs

Why Borders Don't Stop Illegal Drugs
Posted by FoM on September 09, 2000 at 08:14:03 PT
By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen
Source: Ottawa Citizen
U.S. Customs agents at the world's busiest crossing have an impressive record in busting smugglers. But, the U.S. admits, 'drugs still flood in.' The broad sidewalk is filled with pedestrians streaming north. Alongside, across 16 lanes, hundreds of cars are lined up to drive in the same direction. Uniformed agents pick their way through the idling vehicles, their dogs sniffing for the drugs that are almost certainly here, somewhere, in this river of machines and people. 
It's mid-morning on a sunny Tuesday. This is as slow as it ever gets at the San Ysidro port of entry on the Mexican-American border -- the busiest border crossing in the world. Today, around 43,000 vehicles will drive up to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization agents. They will have about 30 seconds to ask questions and decide which of the 43,000 drivers is hiding something. If this were a busier day, another eight lanes of traffic, 24 in total, would be open and 65,000 vehicles would pass by for inspection. In a typical day, around 35,000 pedestrians will do the same. These numbers don't include commercial truck traffic, which uses a separate crossing nearby. Located between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, the San Ysidro border crossing is overflowing with cars, people and symbolism. It's a pulsing demonstration of globalization -- the rapid growth in exchange between the First World and the Third, and the promise it holds for both. It's also a symbol of the growing futility of fighting drug smuggling with police and fences in a world where goods and people flow across borders in swelling floods. It's hard to think of two cities that look more different than San Diego and Tijuana. In the heart of the economic marvel that is southern California, San Diego is the bustling, shiny embodiment of a city planner's dreams. Just across the border, Tijuana is that same planner's nightmare, a sprawling agglomeration of shanty neighbourhoods, massive factories and fortified haciendas, all spiced up by raucous nightclubs, bars and establishments that would make a sailor blush. Still, whatever their outward differences, San Diego and Tijuana are Siamese twins sharing one economic heart. Both cities are growing up to and along the border, producing a merged metropolis with a fortified fence running through its middle. The liberalization of Mexico's economy, culminating in NAFTA, is hastening the day when the twins will share even more than an economic heart. Migrants from all over Mexico flock to Tijuana. They come for work in the maquiladoras -- factories making everything from televisions to trucks -- that were built here by American and Asian companies to take advantage of the cheap labour. Workers typically earn about $75 U.S. a week, an excellent wage by Mexican standards. The management offices of these factories are usually in San Diego. The result is a torrent of daily commuter traffic over the border, with American-based executives travelling south while Mexican maids, landscapers, construction workers and other labourers go north. It may seem an inequitable arrangement, but each side needs the other. San Diego and Tijuana share an economy. The free flow of people, services and goods over the border is its lifeblood. That flow is growing stronger every year. In 1995, 28 million vehicles crossed from Mexico into California. In 1999, it was 31 million. In the same time, commercial truck traffic grew by more than one-quarter. Anything that restricts quick travel across the border is a major economic threat to the whole region. Efforts to fight drug-smuggling are one such restriction. The more time border agents are given to inspect travellers, the more likely they are to stop drugs -- and the more economic damage they will cumulatively do. "No one want drugs to come into the United States," says W.B. Ward, the deputy port director at San Ysidro, "but I think the San Diego and Tijuana communities would be up in arms if we started to do intensive searches on every car down there. I mean, we're talking four-, five-, six- hour waits. That's just intolerable." It's a lesson learned from experience. In 1969, when the U.S. and Mexican economies were far less integrated than today, the Nixon administration decided to stop Mexican marijuana and heroin by searching every third car crossing the border. Immediately, there were traffic backups that stretched for miles. Locals were furious, the Mexican government outraged. The U.S. government quickly dropped the policy. Today, in the era of NAFTA, the push is on to make crossing ever faster. Mr. Ward notes that San Diegans spend $4 billion U.S. in Tijuana every year and Tijuanans spend the same amount in San Diego, "so there's tremendous pressure from the stores in both sections to get people across the border." Caught between the contrary demands of globalization and the war on drugs, the agencies handling San Ysidro compromise. They keep the flow of traffic quick by requiring agents to get 90 to 120 cars through every hour, giving agents just 30 to 45 seconds to size up a vehicle and its driver and decide whether they should do a more thorough search. To help keep up this frantic pace, San Ysidro expanded its workforce from 48 inspectors 14 years ago to 370 now. They also have sniffer dogs, x-ray machines, a national database and other bits of technological wizardry to help. Raw numbers suggest that the agents have great success in stopping smugglers. "We get around 15 drug loads in a 24-hour period," says Mr. Ward. "I think our record is 27 drug loads in a 24-hour period. Most of those are marijuana, but we also get cocaine, heroin and precursors for methamphetamines." Last year at the California crossings alone, almost 10,000 pounds of cocaine were seized, along with 225 pounds of heroin and 1,100 pounds of methamphetamines. A small mountain of marijuana -- 380,000 pounds -- was stopped at the border. But these numbers mean little in isolation. Does seizing even 225 pounds of heroin, 10,000 pounds of cocaine and 380,000 pounds of marijuana make a difference to the availability and price of heroin, cocaine and marijuana in the United States? No. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the war on drugs caused American seizures of all drugs to rocket up. At the same time, every one of the major illegal drugs became more widely available, and most became cheaper. In 1980, according to the United States government, a pure gram of heroin cost $1,194 U.S. at the wholesale level; in 1998, it cost $317. Estimates vary, but some 60 per cent or more of the cocaine that enters the United States each year -- some 393 tons in 1998, according to the U.S. government -- gets in via Mexico. Over the last 15 years, the General Accounting Office, the research arm of the U.S. Congress, has documented the spectacular failure of the U.S. to stop drugs at its borders. "Despite longstanding efforts and expenditures in the billions of dollars," a typical GAO report concluded in 1998, "illegal drugs still flood the United States." Even headline-grabbing arrests of drug lords and the seizure of huge drug shipments "have not materially reduced the availability of drugs in the United States." The reason is as clear as the fence between San Diego and Tijuana. "The border is alchemy," explains Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington D.C. "Over there, it's cheap. Here, it's worth more than gold." Banning drugs makes them hugely profitable. Even a "mule," the lowest-level person carrying a small amount of drugs, can make thousands of dollars just by taking a package across the border. For Mexicans whose best hope is a job in the maquiladoras, that's an irresistible offer. An endless stream of people try to make the border alchemy work. The traffic in marijuana alone is so big that Mexicans caught smuggling the weed in amounts less than 150 pounds are turned back at the border without charges. "We just don't have the bed space" in jails, Mr. Ward explains. Any one of the 100,000 people who cross at San Ysidro every day could be a smuggler. "We'll get 70-year-old ladies strapped around the waist with four or five pounds of heroin," Mr. Ward says. "There's no profile for it." Without a profile, customs agents must trust intuitions to tell them who might be trying to hide something. "It's not what people tell you, it's how they tell you," says Miguel Partida, the assistant port director at San Ysidro. Inevitably, amateurs and small-timers are caught more often than professionals since they are more likely to betray themselves with a shaky voice, twitchy eyes or other signs of nervousness. So confident are many professional smugglers that a decent appearance and calm voice will do the job, that many don't bother with elaborate efforts to hide drugs within their vehicles. They simply pile millions of dollars worth of drugs in the trunk, as if they were golf bags or suitcases. Serious smugglers also use other strategies. Corruption among American customs officers is nothing like the level of graft among Mexican police, but it is not uncommon. Mr. Partida insists that corruption is rare but notes that in his 17 years of service, "I have seen many, many officers that have gone bad." Smugglers also use spotters, who watch the lanes from a distance and direct cars to agents who seem lax or ineffective. In his office on the second floor at San Ysidro, Mr. Ward points a telescope toward the Mexican side of the border and immediately picks out a man watching the crossing while speaking into a cellphone. Somewhere in the hundreds of cars awaiting inspection, there's at least one heavy with drugs. And it probably got through, just one of 43,000 cars that day. If stopping drugs at San Ysidro seems hopeless, consider that at least the border crossing is a bottleneck where traffic is forced to file past inspectors. Outside San Ysidro and other crossings, there are 2,000 miles of land border stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes the border runs straight through cities; more often, it winds across some of the most rugged desert terrain in North America. It's the job of the Border Patrol to hold this thin line. The resources at the Patrol's disposal are impressive. In the San Diego sector alone, which covers 66 miles of land border from the Pacific eastward, the Border Patrol has 2,180 agents and 1,800 vehicles. There are 10 helicopters equipped with infrared cameras developed by the military and another 60 infrared scopes mounted on vehicles and poles. Buried in the ground, there are 1,200 sensors that detect the heat of human bodies, or the magnetic patterns of passing vehicles, or even the footsteps of a hiker. Six miles of the border in this little sector are illuminated at night by stadium lighting. Forty-seven miles are blocked by a fence designed to be unclimbable. Night-vision goggles, computer databases, the best communications equipment: The Border Patrol is better-equipped than many modern armies. In the 1990s, the total Border Patrol complement has nearly tripled. The main focus of this escalation is the fight against illegal aliens and people-smuggling, but, as Border Patrol Agent Merv Mason explains, the people and organizations who smuggle aliens are "very much related" to those smuggling drugs. The smugglers, Agent Mason says, "are very organized and more complicated than people perceive them to be. They have an intelligence network of guides at high points that sit and monitor our operations, watching our patrol patterns. They operate with people on the north side that live in close proximity to the border." Backed by good intelligence, the smugglers constantly devise new methods to get their goods over the border. The only restriction is human ingenuity -- and that seems limitless. Agent Mason cites smugglers who tunnelled under the border into the sewer system on the American side. There they surfaced through a manhole cover -- directly into a parked van with a hole cut in its floor. In urban areas where homes are built right up to the border fence, smugglers simply toss softball-sized packages of heroin or cocaine into American backyards, where colleagues snatch them up and walk on. Last year, a Border Patrol truck travelling on a remote dirt road suddenly dropped into a sinkhole. The truck had fallen into a tunnel complete with concrete walls, a railway track and a cart to shuttle drug loads back and forth. Officials have no idea how long it was in use. "You figure, how many tunnels like that are operating?" asks Agent White with a shake of his head. At another barren spot in the desert, smugglers were found -- also just by the accident of an agent happening by at the right time -- to have cut a gate in the fence. The gate was discretely hinged on the Mexican side, and tire tracks from trucks using the gate were carefully swept away after each use, so nothing looked amiss. Again, it's not known how long, or how often, the gate was used. "It's kind of cat-and-mouse," says Agent Mason. "They're as intuitive and creative as we are at coming up with ways to solve a problem. Every time we come up with a new method of dealing with something, they come up with a new way to smuggle." Smugglers stuffing vehicle tires with cocaine gave agents the idea of tapping tires; those that didn't have a hollow vibration contained drugs. Smugglers responded with compartments within the tires so tapping would hit hollow sections. This sort of evolution never stops. It's a strange game of sorts, one that has been going on since the Patrol was founded in 1924, in part to fight liquor smugglers violating Prohibition. The violence never stops, either. During Prohibition, agents and smugglers alike died trying to send or stop alcohol. The Border Patrol and other agencies continue to take casualties fighting drug-smugglers. In a particularly bizarre incident two years ago, customs agents asked a 72-year-old man crossing the border to go for a secondary inspection. Because of the man's age, he wasn't frisked. He pulled a gun and murdered an agent before being shot dead; he was, it turned out, a ranking member of the Tijuana cartel. In the San Diego sector, four Border Patrol agents have been killed since 1995. There are reports that the Juarez cartel has offered to pay up to $250,000 U.S. for every agent murdered. Agent White declined to have his picture taken for this story. It's a Border Patrol policy to lessen, at least a little, the dangers faced by agents and their families. Back at San Ysidro, the sun is sinking on a Tuesday evening. Through the day, tens of thousands of people, cars and trucks had crossed from Mexico into the U.S. under the watch of hundreds of agents, sniffer dogs, helicopters and an arsenal of high-tech gadgetry. So, too, had hundreds of pounds of drugs. It has been just another day at the border. Dan Gardner is a Citizen Editorial Writer Losing the War on Drugs Is the war on drugs causing more harm than drug abuse itself? The Citizen's Dan Gardner spent five months researching this question, travelling to Colombia, Mexico and the United States. You can read this series at: September 9, 2000Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)Copyright: 2000 The Ottawa CitizenContact: letters Address: 1101 Baxter Rd.,Ottawa, Ontario, K2C 3M4Fax: 613-596-8522Website: Articles:Drug Trade Rots Away Mexican Society Long As There Is Demand, There Will Be Supply The War On Drugs Has Failed Advice: End The Drug War - Vancouver Sun The War On Drugs Has Failed, Part 1a The War On Drugs Has Failed, Part 1b 
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