Drug find rewards customs vigilance But many efforts come up empty

November 09, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

U.S. Customs Service officers constitute one of the country' most sophisticated law enforcement agencies. They labor in near anonymity, rarely making the headlines with the arrests they make, yet their work often involves international intrigue and highly clever criminals.

While most people in Baltimore geared up for New Year's Eve merry-making last year, a dozen U.S. Customs Service inspectors and Intelligence agents in South America had alerted them that a container ship bound from Panama to Baltimore held a large shipment of cocaine. They had also been tipped that the drugs were hidden in 55-gallon drums of glycerin -- a colorless, odorless form of alcohol used in manufacturing. Smugglers had used glycerin drums before.

At 8 a.m. on Dec. 30, the inspectors and guardsmen began a feverish search. Freight manifests revealed that the ship carried 90 drums of glycerin in two containers the size of tractor-trailers. They would have to open every drum, and do it fast enough to avoid a shipping delay that could arouse the smugglers' suspicion.

At first, the drums appeared to be exactly what they seemed. But as they worked, the searchers noticed that some of the drums were stronger and better constructed than others. They looked harder and discovered that those drums had false walls inside.

The designers had been clever. The walls were tapered so the drums appeared normal at the top. A probe would find nothing. But at the bottom, there was a 3-inch gap between the inside and outside walls -- plenty of room for bags of cocaine.

The searchers worked until midnight, broke for sleep, and then returned at 8 a.m. By 7 p.m. on New Year's Eve, they had opened all 90 drums, and found cocaine in 28 of them -- a total of 1,007 pounds. It was the largest seizure of cocaine in Maryland history.

Team ecstatis

The team was ecstatic. But there would be no New Year's Day press conference. The drums were carefully resealed and repacked to eliminate any trace of the search. The containers were placed under surveillance as they were trucked to their destination -- a Philadelphia warehouse.

There, three shifts of customs agents secretly kept them under 24-hour watch. For 29 days, nobody showed up. But on the 30th day, two men entered the warehouse, opened the containers and began breaking into the drums.

They were arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to charges of smuggling and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

It was the sort of operation that the U.S. Customs Contraband Enforcement ("Blitz") Team was created for. But big seizures involving hundreds of pounds of drugs are rare on Baltimore's docks, said Blitz Team chief Adrian Allen.

"There's nothing harder than trying to motivate a force of inspectors and keep them in top form when you are only getting three or four major seizures a year," he said. But when they finally get one, he said, "There's nothing like it."

Much more typical are the days like one blistering weekday last summer when a 40-foot steel cargo container shipped from Honduras caught the attention of Mr. Allen's team.

The container was only half-full. A 20-foot container would have been enough. Why would a legitimate shipper waste the money to ship a container half-empty?

Even more curious to Mr. Allen, this container and its contents were not listed on the ship's manifest. Was there something to hide?

Mr. Allen, who has spent 23 of his 52 years with the Customs Service, is suspicious by profession. "My primary goal is narcotics, or any other significant criminal violation," he said.

He ordered the half-empty container trucked from the dock to a nearby customs shed for a painstaking search.

Obviously, inspectors don't catch everything. More than 270,000 shipping containers passed through Baltimore's port last year, and 4.8 million tons of general cargo.

Only 5 percent of the international cargo moving through Baltimore is physically inspected. But inspectors scrutinize all the documentation, and customs officials say that an extensive computer data base, experienced inspectors and good intelligence here and overseas narrow the odds.

Mr. Allen's target on this day at the Dundalk Marine Terminal is the Danish freighter Skodsborg and the 30 steel containers it is unloading after stops in the Mediterranean and Latin America.

Assisting him are five customs inspectors in blue uniforms, eight full-time National Guardsmen in green fatigues and banks of sophisticated Customs Service computers.

By the time the boarding team clambers up the Skodsborg's gangway, computers have already sifted through the ship's prefiled manifest, searching for unusual amounts or types of freight, new shippers, cargoes from drug-producing areas and other red flags that have signaled drugs or contraband in the past.

But computers have not replaced seasoned humans in a boarding party.

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