Border's Growing Army Fights a Losing Battle 

Border's Growing Army Fights a Losing Battle 
Posted by FoM on January 28, 2001 at 07:43:11 PT
By Dan Gardner
Source: Chicago Sun-Times
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 certainly here, somewhere, in this river of machines and people.
It's midmorning 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 Service agents, who 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 all, would be open, and 65,000 vehicles would pass by for inspection.In a typical day, around 35,000 pedestrians will cross at the same checkpoint. These numbers don't include commercial truck traffic, which uses a separate crossing nearby. Located between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, the San Ysidro border crossing overflows with cars, people and symbolism. It's a pulsing demonstration of globalization.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 the planner's nightmare, a sprawling mass of shanty neighborhoods, massive factories and fortified haciendas, spiced with raucous nightclubs, bars and establishments that would make a sailor blush.Still, San Diego and Tijuana are conjoined twins sharing one economic heart. Both 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 the North American Free Trade Agreement, is hastening the day when the twins will share more. Migrants flock to Tijuana.They come for work in the maquiladoras--factories run by American and Asian companies to take advantage of cheap labor. Workers typically earn about $75 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 border traffic. And the flow of people 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 region. Efforts to fight drug smuggling are one such restriction.The more time border agents are given to inspect travelers, the more likely they are to stop drugs--and the more economic damage they will do."No one wants drugs to come into the United States," says W.B. Ward, 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."Indeed, in the era of NAFTA, the push is on to make crossing ever faster. 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 the agents just 30 to 45 seconds to size up a vehicle and its driver and decide whether to do a more thorough search.San Ysidro has expanded its workforce from 48 inspectors 14 years ago to 370 now. There are also sniffer dogs, X-ray machines, a national database and other bits of technological wizardry to help. Raw numbers suggest the agents have great success in stopping smugglers."We get around 15 drug loads in a 24-hour period," says 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 9,900 pounds of cocaine were seized and 1,089 pounds of methamphetamines. A small mountain of marijuana--376,200 pounds--was stopped.But these numbers mean little in isolation. Does seizing all of these drugs make a difference to the availability and price of heroin, cocaine and marijuana in the United States?No. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, 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 U.S. government, a gram of pure heroin cost $1,194 wholesale; in 1998, it cost $317.Estimates vary, but 60 percent or more of the cocaine that enters the United States each year--about 353 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 Congress, has documented the spectacular failure of the United States to stop drugs at its borders."Despite long-standing 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 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. 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," Ward says."There's no profile for it."Without a profile, customs agents must trust intuition."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 because 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. They simply pile millions of dollars worth of drugs in the car trunk, as if they were golf bags or suitcases.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, Ward points a telescope toward the Mexican side of the border and immediately picks out a man watching the crossing while speaking into a cell phone.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 1,240 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 more than 62 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 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 are illuminated at night by stadium lighting. More than 46 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.The main focus 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. 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. Mason cites smugglers who tunneled 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-size packages of heroin or cocaine into American backyards, where colleagues snatch them up and walk on.Last year, a Border Patrol truck traveling 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."You figure, how many tunnels like that are operating?" asks an agent. 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 discreetly hinged on the Mexican side, and tire tracks from trucks using the gate were carefully swept away after each use, so nothing looked amiss."It's kind of cat-and-mouse," says 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 has been going on since the patrol was founded in 1924, in part to fight liquor smugglers violating Prohibition.Back at San Ysidro, the sun is sinking on a Tuesday evening. Through the day, tens of thousands of people, cars and trucks crossed from Mexico into the United States 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. Just another day at the border.Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)Author: Dan GardnerPublished: January 28, 2001Copyright: 2001 The Sun-Times Co.Address: 401 N. Wabash, Chicago IL 60611Contact: letters suntimes.comWebsite: Articles - Dan Gardner
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Comment #2 posted by Harry Burton on July 21, 2001 at 13:49:13 PT:
Border crossing
Thursday, April 19, 2001Dear Mrs. M AlbrightI am not a complainer however I feel this needs to be brought to someoneís attention regarding the actions of your employees at the Tijuana border crossing. It seems that for some reason the lines are about one hour or more to cross into the United States, itís a terrible scenario for US citizens to try to enter our own country. On Wednesday 04/18/001 I had a Doctors appointment in San Diego at 10:30 AM I took my two children one 9 year old girl and my son 6 so they could have lunch with Dad in the US after my appointment my children were born in Tijuana and have legal US current visas I was detained by a customs agent and then informed that my childrenís Mexico passportís had expired I was unaware of this and pointed out to the agent that their US Visas were current could I please be allowed to keep my Doctorís appointment I was refused and sent back to Mexico. As a senior of 64 this could have been life threting but US customs could care less the employee was extremely rude and stated Oh you can go but the children canít. Who would leave their children? Not I. So back to Mexico we went. My God what type of insanity is this? A nine year old girl and a six year old boy are seen as a threat to the U.S.ThanksHarry
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #1 posted by Toker00 on January 28, 2001 at 11:52:44 PT
Here's an idea.
Someone needs to print a giant poster of the Drug Czar (whomever it will be) looming in the front in all his glory, and somewhere in the background a child seen looking over his shoulder at him while handing a drug dealer money for drugs. The caption should read: "Prohibition is to protect our Children!" It would be a powerful, visual message that Prhibition does just the opposite.Peace. Realize, then Legalize.
[ Post Comment ]

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: