Inspectors' sixth sense is second nature

May 14, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

Call it experience.

Call it training.

Call it a sixth sense.

U.S. Customs inspectors, patrolling the downtown Calexico Port of Entry and Calexico East Port of Entry, depend on it.

It is what enables agents to pick out vehicles with drug loads from the 18,000 vehicles that pass through the downtown port each day β€” not to mention the 18,000 pedestrians who walk through that port. Add to that the cargo traffic that uses the east port each day.

On a recent day, a reporter spent a few hours with Customs officials at the downtown port, considered the third-busiest land port β€” together with the Calexico east port β€” along the southern border. The San Ysidro Port is the busiest port of entry and El Paso is second.


The visit was to be an orientation about the role of Customs at the ports, but as a vehicle was stopped and the driver fled, a story developed.

The vehicle was a gray sedan. Whether it was training, experience or a sixth sense, a Customs inspector decided the car and driver were suspicious.

The driver quickly fled back into Mexico, leaving the car in the hands of Customs officials. Inspectors wasted no time in taking the car into the secondary inspection area. There they tore apart the car and found more than 68 pounds of marijuana hidden in the foam of the back seat and in the door panels.

It wasn't a major seizure, but it still was a victory.

Customs inspectors look at every seizure no matter how large or small as a strike against organized drug traffickers who see the United States as an open market for their business.

"This is a problem that has been around for a very long time," said Vince Bond, a Customs public affairs officer.

Bond said it is incorrect to refer to the effort to stop the movement of drugs as a war, a term used by the media. He said to call it a war means there is a beginning and end.

There will be no end, at least not unless there are changes in society, he said.

"People keep hoping to win the β€˜war' on drugs, but it is not going to happen unless the hunger for drugs is diminished. This is a continual societal problem."

Those Customs inspectors working the "line" know there is no way they can stop all drugs from coming across the border. They know while their efforts are organized, those who attempt to move narcotics across the border also are organized.

"They are always watching us and we have to be aware that they are watching us," said Chief Customs Inspector Bill Whitford, who has worked at the Calexico downtown port for 21 years.

Whitford said inspectors know any individual could be watching from across the street, where businesses fill Calexico's downtown.

He said anyone standing near the port with a cell phone or near a pay phone could be reporting information to individuals across the border.

Still, Whitford and other Customs officials say they are far from helpless in curtailing the flow of drugs.

They said they have a few tricks up their sleeves to catch drug traffickers no matter how organized they might be. While officials are not willing to give away all the secrets, they did talk about some of their practices.

"It's like a minefield," said Al Miramontes, the Calexico-area assistant ports director. "They (drug traffickers) have to guess what kind of hurdles are out there."

He said Customs will utilize different tactics, from using canine units that move up and down the line of vehicles waiting to cross the border to having unscheduled screenings of all vehicles coming through the port.

One piece of information officials will not give out is how many Customs inspectors are based at the Calexico-area ports.

"We don't want the bad guys to know what our strength is," Bond said.

He did say it is a team effort that makes it possible to contend with the movement of drugs.

Customs inspectors work hand in hand with U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service inspectors to monitor the flow of drugs, any other illegal contraband and illegal immigration.

INS officials focus on immigration; Customs focuses on the movement of contraband, particularly narcotics.

Both Customs and INS inspectors are stationed at the primary inspection booths where vehicles are stopped and motorists are questioned before they are allowed to drive into Calexico.

The inspectors at those booths make the decisions to send suspicious vehicles into the secondary inspection area.

Beyond the ports, Border Patrol agents monitor illegal immigration and the movement of drugs along the 72-mile stretch of border fence in the Imperial Valley. The California Highway Patrol and local police departments also play a role.

"It is a federal, state and local effort," Bond said.

It is that joint effort, officials hope, that sends a message to drug traffickers that there is a good chance they will be caught if they pass through the Valley.

Still, for Customs and INS, the first line of defense is the primary booth checkpoint.

Inspectors spend eight-hour shifts monitoring the thousands of vehicles passing through the port.

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