Drug hide-and-seek on Mexico's border

Customs agents play a frustrating game to stem the rising tide

January 24, 2000|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

SAN YSIDRO, Calif. -- Here at the busiest border crossing in the world, 41,000 cars travel every day from Mexico to the United States.

Some of them are carrying drugs. All U.S. Customs Inspector Robert Hood and his colleagues have to do is figure out which ones.

Strolling 24 lanes of seething, stinking traffic, Hood scans for clues -- a newly painted panel on an old car, possibly a sign of a hidden compartment; a jumpy driver whispering to a passenger; the acrid smell of a solvent intended to foil drug-sniffing dogs.

"It's a big thrill when you stop someone and realize, `Gotcha! There's a load,' " says Hood, a former high school history teacher who has been with the Customs Service for 12 years. One secret of his success, he says, is avoiding stereotypical thinking about smugglers: "I had a 70-year-old guy in a Honda Accord last month with 18 pounds of cocaine in his gas tank. I had a family in a van with marijuana stuffed in the seats and the kids sitting on it."

Inspectors seized more drugs than ever last year along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, and some U.S. officials note the tonnage stopped as a measure of their success. But others say the numbers more likely reflect the growing flood of narcotics from Mexico, which supplies two-thirds of the cocaine and, by some estimates, as much as one-third of the heroin consumed in this country.

"If a drug trafficker decides to increase his drug volume over the border, seizures are going to go up," says Peter Andreas, a Harvard University political scientist who has studied the border around San Ysidro, between the cities of San Diego and Tijuana. "To continue to insist that seizures are a measure of progress is ridiculous."

Most of the cocaine and heroin that ravages Baltimore, shattering families and fueling theft and violence, arrives by car and train from New York City. But before the drugs reach New York, they cross the U.S. border, and the chances are greater than ever that they cross from Mexico at a place like San Ysidro.

The Mexican cartels emerged in the 1980s chiefly to transport drugs for far more powerful Colombian producers. But during the 1990s, as U.S. and Colombian law enforcement pressure squeezed the Medellin and then the Cali cartels, Mexican drug organizations eclipsed their Colombian rivals, emerging as the major powers in the world drug trade.

"These Mexico-based criminal organizations have rapidly become the primary entities responsible for distributing drugs to citizens of the United States," Thomas A. Constantine, then-director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told Congress last year. He said the Mexican cartels' turf spread during the 1990s from the western United States to the East Coast, giving them virtual control of the nationwide drug trade.

Residents of drug-troubled neighborhoods in cities such as Baltimore often ask why the government can't stop narcotics at the border. The scene at San Ysidro is a vivid answer.

On the Mexican side, on a steep side road lined with shops and a taco stand, several people gaze down at the border's permanent traffic jam. A few others slouch against the fence atop a bridge above Interstate 5 on the U.S. side. They seem idle. They are not.

They are sentinels of the drug cartels, the "spotters" who study search tactics and note lazy and corrupt inspectors. When inspectors and their drug-sniffing dogs are diverted temporarily to a suspicious car, they pass the word to their bosses via pager or cell phone: Send a load now.

On the other side in this round-the-clock chess game, U.S. border agents patrol in the exhaust fumes. Hood, an upbeat man with a neat beard and wire-rim glasses, is renowned for his uncanny sense of who is a smuggler.

He knows the tricks: Smugglers "shotgun" four or five cars loaded with drugs at the same time. Or they send "decoys," easy-to-find bags of marijuana or cars rigged with telltale signs but no drugs, to draw personnel off the checkpoints while valuable loads of cocaine are sent across.

"It's a game of hide-and-seek. They're trying to beat me. But I'm going to get their load," says Hood, who recently joined the customs unit at the San Diego airport.

Border inspectors' vigilance has prompted the cartels to try alternative methods: tunnels dug under the border; smugglers crossing the desert with drug-stuffed backpacks; personal watercraft carrying loads up the coast at night; even hollowed-out surfboards, paddled from a Mexican beach into U.S. waters.

But the big volume, most experts believe, is hidden in the unending stream of traffic. Every day, in addition to the 41,000 cars, 20,000 people walk north across the border, some of them carrying drugs. Four hapless smugglers were caught at San Ysidro 16 months ago with 8 pounds of cocaine concealed in their shoes.

Cesar E. Trevino, a former San Diego lawyer who ran drugs north and money south through San Ysidro in the mid-1990s, says the Mexican drug exporters consider seizures an annoyance but not a threat.

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