Pubdate: Thu, 01 Nov 2001
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2001 Associated Press
Author: Chris Roberts, Associated Press Writer

Border Drug Smugglers Resume Their Trade After Brief Layoff

(11-01) 16:44 PST EL PASO, Texas (AP) -- At the Santa Fe International 
Bridge in El Paso, Customs inspectors are flinging open hoods and trunks, 
knocking on body panels and crouching on hands and knees to peek under 

The scene has been repeated thousands of times since the Sept. 11 terrorist 
attacks. On Thursday afternoon, inspectors dug out nearly 50 packages of 
marijuana, weighing a total of 70 pounds, from a false gas tank in a shiny 
Toyota Tercel.

The seizure illustrates what Customs Service and Border Patrol officials 
are seeing: Drug smugglers are returning to business after a short-lived 
wariness caused by stepped-up security along the Southwest border following 
the terrorist attacks.

In the two weeks immediately following the attacks, drug seizures along the 
1,962-mile U.S.-Mexico border fell 80 percent compared with the same period 
last year. But the trend since has reversed, possibly as smugglers attempt 
to make up lost profits and dispose of September's marijuana harvest, 
officials said.

U.S. Customs Service seizures of marijuana between Sept. 24 and Oct. 25 are 
up anywhere from 58 percent along the South Texas border to 394 percent in 
Arizona. Combined, more than 32,000 pounds were confiscated in Texas, New 
Mexico and Arizona.

In Southern California, where the records are kept differently, an 11 
percent increase in marijuana seizures was recorded in the first 25 days of 
October. Nearly 31,500 pounds were seized.

Vincent Bond, a spokesman for Customs in Southern California, said the 
spotters who identify for drug smugglers the lanes or checkpoints where 
inspections are the least rigorous "could see the intense level of 
scrutiny." "They decided to wait it out hoping it would go back to the way 
it was and that hasn't happened," he said. So "they decided to risk the 
increased scrutiny." Marijuana smugglers are in a bind because the end of 
September marked their harvest and dealers are eager to move old supplies, 
said Dean Boyd, a Customs spokesman in Washington, D.C. The increased 
scrutiny of U.S. airspace means flying drugs into the United States is no 
longer a viable option, he said.

"They owe people and they need to get it to market," Boyd said. Cocaine is 
the second most commonly seized drug, although in far less gaudy amounts. 
For every state except Arizona, seizures increased between Sept. 24 and 
Oct. 25 compared with the same period last year. In South Texas, Customs 
officials netted 378 percent more cocaine than last year. "I guess they're 
trying to move what they held back," said Rick Pauza, a Customs Service 
spokesman in South Texas.

Bond said smugglers entering Southern California are picking the busiest 
checkpoints -- "trying to be a very small needle in a very large haystack." 
Others are searching for ways around official checkpoints. In Arizona, 
traditional smuggling methods include using backpacks or pack horses to 
avoid official border crossings, said Rob Daniels, spokesman for the U.S. 
Border Patrol's Tucson sector.

That means Border Patrol agents also are picking up narcotics. In South 
Texas, an area on the Rio Grande near the remote town of Refugio has 
accounted for four marijuana seizures in the past week, totaling 3,489 
pounds and valued at some $2.8 million.

Between Oct. 1 and Monday, agents in Arizona and New Mexico reported 
increases of 135 percent and 194 percent, respectively. Together, they have 
collected 23,655 pounds.

"They're desperate," McAllen Border Patrol sector spokesman Carlos Quevedo 
said. "They don't even care if it's daylight. They just want to get lucky." 
Earlier this week, at a routine inspection at the Bridge of the Americas in 
El Paso, smugglers did little to conceal their stash of cocaine. About $6.5 
million worth of the drug was barely hidden in the trunk. Before Sept. 11, 
most vehicles were waved through the checkpoints. Now, since border 
officials went to the highest level of alert, nearly every vehicle gets 
scrutinized. Routine inspections include an examination of both the trunk 
and the engine compartment and a survey of the passenger space. Carlos 
Lopez, crossing into El Paso from his home in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, said 
he was not bothered by the extra measures. "I think it's very important," 
Lopez said. "We have a little problem when we cross, but the security for 
the United States is important for my country, too."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Rebel