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Drugs Cross Border By Truck, Free Trade And Chance
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Drugs Cross Border By Truck, Free Trade And Chance

National Security

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Over the weekend, more than 100 Mexican marines fought a daylong battle with drug cartel gunmen in the city of Matamoros. That's just across the river from Brownsville, Texas. And when it was over, the man known as Tony Tormenta, who controlled the powerful Gulf Cartel, was dead.

BLOCK: The Gulf Cartel controls the border crossing between Matamoros and Brownsville. The weekend violence is a reminder that border crossings are vital to the cartels. They're gateways to the world's richest illegal drug market. And more and more traffickers are turning to commercial trucks to smuggle marijuana.

As NPR's John Burnett reports, that illegal trade coexists with the free trade that drives the economy.

JOHN BURNETT: Pick one border town: Nuevo Laredo. Here, the Gulf Cartel is battling the Zetas for control of the plaza whose prize is the World Trade Bridge. It's the biggest commercial port on the southwest border. Forty-eight hundred trucks cross a day. That's one truck every 15 seconds. From here, via Interstate 35, it's a straight shot to America's drug-loving heartland.

Mr. GENE GARZA (Port Director, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Laredo, Texas): By far, not only is it the busiest in amount of trucks, but it is also the busiest in the narcotics that are seized here each year. We get a lot of tile shipments where we find drugs in. We get a lot of furniture with marijuana loads out of Jalisco.

BURNETT: That's Gene Garza, the longtime Laredo port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Truck traffic here Laredo has tripled since the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force 16 years ago. If they examined every truck, it would cripple free trade. Customs inspectors unload and examine one out of every five trucks, so drug traffickers play the numbers game.

Mr. GARZA: They're probably thinking that my truck is not going to get examined. We're going to go through Laredo to see if we can get through.

BURNETT: This fiscal year, more than four and a half million commercial trucks crossed into the U.S. from Mexico. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in 2010 agents seized 96 tons of marijuana from trucks at southwest ports of entry; that's more than twice as much as in 2006. Officials say tougher enforcement in the lonesome stretches between border towns is funneling more contraband through these busy border crossings.

Customs and Border Protection officer Lawrence Madrid screens trucks all day at the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso.

Mr. LAWRENCE MADRID (Customs and Border Protection Officer): (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: He quizzes the grizzled driver of a white Freightliner hauling vehicle electrical systems.

Mr. MADRID: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. MADRID: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: And eyes him carefully while he's talking.

Mr. MADRID: When they're handing you documentation, the first thing you look at is their hands, whether they're trembling or - just talking to the interviewer right away, whether they - if they take time to answer the questions or that they're stuttering when they answer, just stuff like that you pick up.

BURNETT: According to federal law enforcement and Mexican security sources, drug mafias have thoroughly infiltrated Mexican export and trucking companies. Sometimes, drivers are paid to haul dope that they know is hidden in their cargo, but sometimes, they're clueless.

This Mexican trucker gives his name as Andres. He sits in the cab of a black Kenworth idling at a truck stop in Nuevo Laredo, about to haul a load of blackberries across the bridge.

ANDRES (Trucker): (Through Translator) First, you have to stay very close to your truck. Don't leave it alone, because in an unguarded moment when you leave to go buy some food, someone can put a package in there. It doesn't take long for them to do that. That's why I'm sitting right here in my truck, keeping an eye on things.

BURNETT: With the economic power to corrupt almost anyone who's useful to them, drug mafias have also gained access to shipping departments inside export plants.

Alberto Islas, a Mexican industrial security consultant, advises maquilas, the export-oriented Mexican assembly plants along the border that make everything from auto parts to laptops.

Mr. ALBERTO ISLAS (Industrial Security Consultant): The threat of organized crime going into maquilas, it's a constant threat. It was something that we didn't see five or 10 years ago.

BURNETT: A case in point: Eduardo owns a private security company in a Mexican border city, where he is hired by maquilas to make sure their U.S.-bound loads are clean. These are his drug-sniffing dogs.

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

BURNETT: And these are his uniformed employees searching for false compartments in a tractor trailer bound for the U.S.

Eduardo is a former Mexican police official who boasts a long list of industrial clients, which he showed me to prove his authenticity. Eduardo, however, is not his real name, and his voice has been altered because what he says could get him killed. He says he's speaking out because he's fed up.

EDUARDO (Owner, Private Security Company): (Through Translator) It's horrible. You feel super impotent when you can't do anything. Unfortunately, organized crime affects everything. Even companies you thought were clean. Recently, a large company that was certified by U.S. Customs for expedited transit was passing drugs into the U.S.

BURNETT: Eduardo says drug traffickers paid a manager in the company $50 to $100 per pound of marijuana that successfully made it across.

What's startling about his allegation is that it happened at a well-known company that's certified under C-TPAT, the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. Under the U.S.-administered program, a Mexican exporter submits its personnel and security procedures to thorough checking by U.S. Customs. Once they're satisfied, the cargo enjoys expedited transit through U.S. ports of entry.

Eduardo says he saw evidence that company managers had smuggled marijuana in at least two trucks past his dogs and his men. Alarmed, he alerted his client and U.S. Customs to the discovery, but nothing happened.

EDUARDO: (Through Translator) It's assumed we have a contract to check the cargo inside the plant. They pay us to do that, but they never call us to enter the plant. We only check the trucks they send us. If a U.S. Customs agent asks to see the company's paperwork, they'll show him they have a contract with us. But the contract doesn't reflect the reality.

BURNETT: Eduardo added that he believes the number of exporters that subvert the C-TPAT program are few, and he plans to let his contract expire with the company in question.

Brad Skinner is head of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. BRAD SKINNER (Director, Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, Department of Homeland Security): We have no direct, corroborated information that any particular drug-trafficking organization is specifically targeting the C-TPAT shipments.

BURNETT: Skinner says he's not aware of Eduardo's story, but Skinner says the ports of entry are more secure than they've ever been, with devices like X-ray machines and radiation monitors.

We're back at the noisy inspection dock at Laredo's World Trade Bridge with port director Gene Garza.

Mr. GARZA: We have the contraband enforcement team officers working there. We have the canines working there. There's a lot of looking at the merchandise. There's a lot of people who go into the trailer itself, to take a visual inside that trailer.

BURNETT: Inspectors in blue uniforms use forklifts to remove pallets from the cavernous trailers. Then, a drug-sniffing dog checks it out. If everything is okay, the goods are reloaded, and the truck goes on its way.

Mr. GARZA: The peanuts are going to Minneapolis, Minnesota. The skin cream is going to Norwalk, Connecticut, and the air conditioners are going to Lenexa, Kansas.

BURNETT: With a billion dollars worth of cargo crossing the U.S.-Mexico border every day, free trade is one of the greatest gifts for drug traffickers.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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