YOU ARE HERE: IVPress HomeCollections

Game of cat and mouse played by U.S. Customs agents, members of Mexican drug cartels

July 09, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

To enter the world of U.S. Customs Service agents is to discover what it is to try to bring down drug cartels one "cell" at a time.

It's a never-ending game of cat and mouse — as Customs agents describe it — with each side trying to outmaneuver the other and adapt to the other's intelligence.

One recent day, agents of the Customs office of investigations in El Centro invited a reporter to spend some time in an office few ever see.

The office behind Valley Plaza shopping center looks unassuming enough, but behind the shaded doors a complex effort is ongoing to stem the flow of drugs and other contraband through the Valley.


Agents are cautious when they talk to a reporter. They can only say so much on the record because to give too many details might alert drug organizations to the agents' latest efforts.

More important, they say, to give away too much information may put the agents' lives even more at risk in a line of work that calls for taking on those who will do whatever they can to further their trade — even spilling blood.

The agents have a different role from their uniformed counterparts, the Customs inspectors who man ports of entry. Those inspectors are the first line of defense against drug trafficking as they check vehicles as they cross the border.

When an inspector stops a "load" vehicle filled with marijuana, cocaine or some other contraband, agents are called in to start an investigation.

The seizure of drugs and the arrest of individuals trying to cross the border with narcotics represent chances for agents to track where the drugs came from and where they were going.

Each investigation is a chance to bring down a "cell," the term for stash houses and those who make up parts of a smuggling organizations.

When a "cell" is taken down, it is a victory; albeit a small one, against drug trafficking organizations nestled safely across the border and as large as many corporations, with clear divisions of authority and labor.

While it may be difficult for those in law enforcement to touch the top of a drug organization, knocking out a "cell" makes a difference and can lead to a higher point in the chain, agents say.

"Our mission is to dismantle a smuggling organization," said Supervisory Special Agent Chris Martinez, one of a group of agents who met with a reporter to talk about their work.

"We are doing that all the time," Martinez said.

While Customs officials will not reveal how many agents are based in the Imperial Valley, they do say the agents are busy non-stop.

From June 7-13, for example, agents from the local sector handled 66 cases and 42 felony arrests, most related to drug seizures. And that was a slow week.

Ricardo Sandoval, resident agent in charge of the El Centro area, said the activity through the two Calexico ports of entry and the Andrade port make the Imperial Valley the third-busiest land port for drug trafficking along the Southwest border.

Federal authorities also seize drug proceeds. There tends to be a couple of monetary seizures a week. Last year more than $3 million in drug proceeds were seized along the California border.

There are five Customs investigative groups in the El Centro area handling such areas as narcotic smuggling, money laundering, fraud, federal weapons cases and child pornography.

Much work done by agents goes unpublicized — a tactic that allows agents to carry on their investigations without alerting drug traffickers.

If Customs nabs 400 pounds of marijuana, there is a good chance the seizure will not be reported to the local press if keeping such information quiet is crucial to the investigation.

Agents interviewed for this story said theirs is a job filled with frustration.

There are rules they have to follow, and there are only so many resources available for the agents.

On the other hand, "the cartels have unlimited friends, intelligence, overtime and staffing," Sandoval said, adding the cartels "can adapt to us easier than we can adapt to them."

The drug organizations know who to prey on to get their drugs across the border. Those people are encountered at such locations as bars in Mexicali and told by recruiters they will be given, for example, $500 for driving a car through the port and leaving it at some location.

Those people, known as "load" drivers, are in need of money. The drug organizations know they can get such people to bring drugs across the lines.

Customs agents said it is important to include one detail in a story such as this — that if a person offered money to bring drugs across instead contacted Customs, that person could be paid more than he would get from the drug organization. They said such people could tip Customs officials without using their names.

To provide information to Customs, people can call 1 (800) BE ALERT or 353-9090. Tips can be given in English or Spanish.

In the cat and mouse game between Customs and the drug cartels, the agents have strong allies who lend a key hand in the effort to combat the flow of drugs.

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles