U.S. Customs Service officers labor in near anonymity. Arrests they make rarely make headlines. The public rarely sees them. Yet they're part of one of the country's most sophisticated law enforcement agencies.
Their targets range from big-time drug smugglers, fugitives and money launderers to vacationers trying to slip a mango into the country or bring back a gold ring without paying duty. They watch for arms and high-tech items headed overseas in violation of U.S. and international embargoes.
Customs officers also are the United States' first line of economic defense, on the lookout for fake Gucci bags and counterfeit Mickey Mouse watches that violate U.S. copyright laws. They stand guard against auto parts and other goods illegally "dumped" here at artificially low prices by foreign companies trying to drive U.S. manufacturers out of business.
"We enforce 400 laws for 40 different agencies," said Donald G. Turnbaugh, 53, special agent in charge of the U.S. Customs office in Baltimore and a former Baltimore City police officer from Hampden.
About 6,200 customs inspectors and 2,800 special agents guard the nation's 300 ports, supported by a network of attaches and contacts overseas, intelligence analysts and one of the most far-flung and sophisticated computer intelligence systems in U.S. law enforcement.
Without such resources, the work would be nearly impossible.
In the year that ended June 1993, about 100 agents and inspectors in the U.S. Customs Baltimore District monitored the arrivals of more than 260,000 international passengers, almost 2,200 ships and 3,300 aircraft.
On the waterfront, they scrutinized 132,000 arriving freight containers and 139,000 more headed overseas. There was another 2.5 million tons of inbound general cargo and almost as much outbound.
They made almost 150 seizures of drugs and other contraband during the same period, and made 41 arrests. Baltimore's customs personnel also collected almost $449 million in import duties.