Inspectors Can Do Little to Stem Tide of Smuggling

U.S. law enforcers face an overwhelming task in staunching the flow of illicit drugs from Mexico into the United States.

At border towns such as Nogales, a handful of officers is confronted with a huge volume of cross-border pedestrian, automobile and truck traffic each day.

And this doesn't include the thousands of people who illegally enter the country each week by leaping the steel fence that separates Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Sonora; by dashing through border crossings; by walking up sewer tunnels; or by crossing the flimsy border fence a few miles outside town.

Some of these illegal immigrants carry narcotics. The U.S. Border Patrol, which has seen its work force in the Southwest bolstered, routinely collects bales of marijuana left by illegal immigrants who simply abandon their loads and flee back into Mexico when confronted by the Border Patrol.

While Mexico has been severely criticized in recent weeks over its scandal-plagued drug-enforcement mechanism, the United States has done little to beef up drug enforcement in border towns such as Nogales. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has only four agents in Nogales, one of the busiest ports of entry in the nation.

Arrayed against them is a vast and sophisticated network of Mexican drug traffickers who have decades of smuggling experience. As soon as the DEA figures out one drug-smuggling scheme, the traffickers quickly switch tactics and routes.

"It's like a game of chess," says DEA special agent Richard E. Conine.
Adding to the complexity is the sheer volume of commercial trucks entering Nogales, Arizona, from Mexico every day. There also are hundreds of tractor-trailers scattered across Nogales' streets and parking lots at any one time, waiting to pick up loads. DEA occasionally catches U.S. truckers transporting narcotics.

During the peak traffic period--February through May--more than 1,000 trucks a day enter the United States through Nogales' commercial port.

Fewer than 2 percent of the trucks crossing the border are subject to extensive searches requiring the complete off-loading and inspection of cargo, says Rene Felix, a U.S. Customs supervisory inspector at the commercial-truck crossing in Nogales.

To inspect more trucks would exacerbate already lengthy delays. Trucks waiting to enter the U.S. sometimes create queues that stretch more than a mile into Mexico.

To keep traffic moving, most Mexican truckers who have their paperwork in order are waved directly through the main inspection area to another station the Customs Service calls "secondary express."

At secondary express, one Customs agent--and sometimes several--spends a few seconds peering beneath trucks, waving a hand-held meter designed to detect drugs hidden in the walls of trailers, and sticking a pole into holes drilled into trailers, searching for contraband. Sometimes the inspectors are accompanied by drug-sniffing dogs.

If the inspector has suspicions about a truck, the vehicle is pulled from the processing line and is searched more extensively.

But for the most part, the trucks sail through the border inspection.
All this occurs under the watchful eyes of Mexican "spotters" who sit on a hillside overlooking the port to see if drug-laden trucks make it through inspection.

The Customs inspectors checking the trucks work long hours under stressful situations and rarely find narcotics.

"These guys are out here for eight hours at a time. It's the toughest job here," Felix says.

Customs inspectors at the Nogales commercial port have made only 16 seizures since May 1995, netting 7,000 pounds of cocaine, 5,000 pounds of marijuana and 24 pounds of methamphetamine, according to chief inspector Celia De La Ossa.

"We have been pretty lucky," De La Ossa says. "We don't catch them every day, but when we do, it's a big one."

Seizures at the Nogales port barely dent the huge flow of narcotics entering the United States through Mexico.

"U.S. and Mexican interdiction efforts have had little, if any, impact on the overall flow of drugs through Mexico into the United States," the General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, reported last September.

The State Department estimates that up to 70 percent of the more than 300 tons of cocaine that entered the United States in 1994 came through Mexico.

In March 1996, the State Department reported that Mexico supplied up to 80 percent of the foreign-grown marijuana consumed in the United States, and 20 percent to 30 percent of the heroin.

One reason interdiction efforts have failed is Mexico's 1993 decision to refuse most U.S. funds to fight drug traffickers, the GAO reported. In the two years after Mexico stopped taking the U.S. funding, the volume of cocaine seized and the number of drug arrests in Mexico declined.

For example, the GAO reported the average annual amount of cocaine seized in Mexico between 1990 and 1992 was more than 45 metric tons, including more than 50 tons in 1991. From 1993 to 1995, however, average cocaine seizures declined to about 30 metric tons annually. The number of drug-related arrests in Mexico declined by nearly two thirds between 1992 and 1995.

According to U.S. officials, Mexican efforts are hampered by pervasive corruption of key institutions, economic and political problems, and limited counternarcotics and law-enforcement capabilities.

A general lack of cooperation from Mexican authorities has created a "black hole" for intelligence on the role Mexican commercial shippers might play in transporting narcotics to the border, says Rudy Cole, director of U.S. Customs' Nogales port.

Even when U.S. Customs seizes narcotics on a commercial truck, there are many obstacles to discovering who is really responsible for the shipment, not the least of which is the lack of cooperation from Mexican border inspectors.

"Mexican customs is not involved in drug enforcement," Cole says.
Further hampering investigations is the method in which the cargo is moved across the border. Most cargo imported into the United States by truck is carried by short-haul Mexican trucking companies that act as a shuttle service.

The short-haul companies pick up trailers at border warehouses in Mexico, go through U.S. Customs, then shuttle their cargo to U.S. warehouses in Nogales, Arizona. If drugs are discovered in the trailer, the Mexican truck driver usually evades prosecution because the trailer was picked up only a few miles away at a Mexican warehouse.

These drivers have limited information about what they are hauling, making it next to impossible to determine the true source of the narcotics, Cole says.

"Of the cargo loads of dope seized on trucks, I don't think they have ever tied it back to any individual," Cole says.

While Cole laments a "black hole" of intelligence information from Mexico, he displayed surprising ignorance of produce distributors on the U.S. side.

Although Cole has worked for Customs in Nogales for 22 years, he told New Times earlier this month that he never heard of Symington family business partner Alejandro Canelos, even though the Canelos family is one of the oldest and largest shippers operating in Nogales.

Cole says he hadn't heard of Canelos until New Times made inquiries.
"I just was not aware; it was nothing to me," he says.
While Cole says he never had heard of Canelos, he says he is quite familiar with Canelos' distribution warehouse in Nogales, G.A.C. Produce.

"G.A.C., I know, is one of the more established ones that has been around for years," Cole says.

Told that G.A.C. was one of Canelos' companies, the Nogales port director says, "I was not aware of that."

Apparently, Cole has never read the emblems on produce trailers parked in the G.A.C. Produce warehouse yard. Those trucks prominently bear a marketing label used by Canelos, "A.B.C. Tomatoes."

If there is any doubt about who owns "A.B.C. Tomatoes," one must only read the next line on the emblem: "Grown, Packed and Shipped By CANELOS HNOS."

--John Dougherty

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty