Pubdate: Mon, 11 Aug 2008
Source: Tucson Citizen (AZ)
Copyright: 2008 Tucson Citizen
Author: Renando Echavarri


Austen led the search at sunset.

He walked through the southern Arizona desert looking  left and right
with his nose close to the ground.

Austen, a groenendael, or Belgian shepherd, sped  through brush, tall
weeds and rocky trails, leading  Border Patrol agents to bags and
sacks used to smuggle  drugs. But the drugs, and those who transported
them,  were long gone.

The drug spot is close to a dirt road not far from a  house south of
Green Valley.

Agents said the area is known as a meeting point for  people carrying
drugs across the border and drivers who  take them north.

What Austen smelled was drug residue left on the bags  used to carry
drugs, most likely 25 to 50 pounds of  marijuana.

The canine unit is one of the Border Patrol's tools for  finding
people and drugs smuggled across the border.

The Tucson sector has more than 70 dogs as part of its  K-9

"We are seeing an increase in dogs in our sector,  helping us get to
situations faster and screen vehicles  much quicker," Border Patrol
spokesman Michael Scioli  said.

So far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, agents in  the Border
Patrol's Tucson sector, which has about  3,100 agents, have arrested
281,201 people trying to  cross the border illegally. That's a 26
percent  decrease from this time last year, when there were  378,239
arrests, Scioli said.

Last year agents seized 897,535 pounds of marijuana and  more than 177
pounds of cocaine. So far this year they  have seized 720,121 pounds
of marijuana and more than  70 pounds of cocaine, Scioli said. Not all
of those  seizures are the result of dogs.

At least one dog is always working at the Interstate 19  checkpoint,
which is a high-traffic stop.

Michael Lawler, Tucson sector K-9 coordinator, said  checkpoints are
the most difficult environment for dogs  to work in because of the

"There's wind, distracting odors, agents working around  them, other
dogs and, of course, the 1,500 vehicles  that drive by every hour," he

One of the sector's top dogs - which agents did not  want to name for
security purposes - has found 42,889  pounds of marijuana with a
street value of $34 million,  249 pounds of cocaine valued at $8
million, 10 pounds  of methamphetamine worth $300,000, 1,500 suspected
  illegal immigrants and $70,000 in cash since 2001.

Lawler didn't want to provide more details on how the  dogs are used
because he said smugglers use that  information to adjust their
smuggling tactics.

In the past couple of months, agents have come across  false alarm
signals from their dogs at the checkpoints.

Christopher Jbara, an agent and K-9 instructor, said he  was recently
working the checkpoint with Brita, his  3-year-old dog, when she
alerted him to a car.

"We searched the car thoroughly and found nothing."

He said the car had most likely been contaminated on  one side of the
border or the other and it was likely  the driver was not aware.

"They do this so my dog hits the smell, forcing us to  pull the car
over for a second inspection, while the  car with the load tries to
sneak by a few cars behind,"  Jbara said.

The contamination could have come from a small amount  of marijuana
left on the car, cocaine residue or water  from a bong used to smoke

"Any little residue and my dog will alert me to it,"  Jbara

He said the car's windshield had been washed by a  window washer on
the street before crossing the border,  and the water used to clean it
could have been  contaminated with bong water.

"We have no confirmation of how these cars are being  contaminated,
but we are checking each car, and when  our dogs alert us, we check
the cars behind it, too."

Every dog in the canine unit is trained to find both  drugs and

"I couldn't even try to explain how these dogs find  that one
concealed person in a van full of people, but  they do," said Lawler.

"That's the part of the job an agent couldn't do alone.  That's why we
have these dogs working with us every  day," Lawler said.

The Border Patrol is neither breed-nor sex-specific  when it comes to
buying or breeding their dogs.

"It's all up to the dog's drive," said Robert Lukason,  staff
instructor of the U.S. Border Patrol National  Canine Facility.

Each dog working for the Border Patrol has gone through  an extensive
training program that starts as early as  eight weeks after birth.

After the "puppy test," dogs are tested at four,  seven,, 11 and 14
months, then begin the 10-week  training program, said Lukason, who is
in charge of  training at least 150 dogs per year at the national
training center in El Paso.

The dogs are trained to work along the U.S. borders  with Canada and
with Mexico. This year, 650 dogs are  working nationwide with the
Border Patrol and U.S.  Customs and Border Protection. The working
life of the  dogs varies depending on their location.

Some dogs work in the field, even in mountain areas.  Others work at
checkpoints. For the most part, they  work from seven to nine years,
Lukason said.

"The fitness level of these dogs doesn't compare to a  house dog," he
said. "These dogs are trained to work  hard, long hours almost every

Lawler's dog, Baldo, is a 92-pound, 6-year-old Belgian  malinois and
German shepherd mix. He has helped agents  find 20,000 pounds of
marijuana, 8 ounces of cocaine  and 560 people since the end of 2004.

"We spend most of the day with our dog. They live with  us, and they
work with us," Jbara said. "I end up  spending more time with my dog
than with my family  sometimes."
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MAP posted-by: Steve Heath