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"Drug Trafficking on the Southwest Border"

"Drug Trafficking on the Southwest Border"

Testimony on Drug Threat on U.S.-Mexico Border of John C. Varrone, Assistant Commissioner -- Office of Investigations, United States Customs Service Before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime, March 29, 2001. (John Varrone says border marks "frontline" against drug smuggling). Source: Washington File (EUR419), U.S. Department of State, Washington D.C., March 29, 2001.

The U.S. southwest border with Mexico represents the "frontline" in the challenge to fight the trafficking of illegal drugs into the United States, says John Varrone, assistant commissioner for the Office of Investigations in the U.S. Customs Service.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime March 29, Varrone said that the "windows of opportunities for would-be drug smugglers along the southwest border are staggering."

The challenge for law enforcement agents, he explained, is that 293 million people, 89 million automobiles, and 4.5 million trucks crossed the southwest border from Mexico into the United States in fiscal year 2000. These numbers, he said, climb each year as U.S. trade increases with Mexico.

Varrone said 79 percent of all narcotics seizures by the Customs Service in fiscal year 2000 occurred at the southwest border. Marijuana seizures, he said, were up 12 percent to 1.1 million pounds, accounting for 86 percent of the marijuana seized nationally by Customs. Varrone also said about 14 percent of the heroin seized in the United States comes from Mexico, while 35 percent of the methamphetamines seized by Customs was identified as having been produced in Mexico.

Varrone said his agency is focusing on improved coordination of federal interdiction efforts as well as better use of advanced technology, effective intelligence gathering, and investigative operations to combat the drug threat along the southwest border.

Following is the text of Varrone's prepared testimony: (begin text)

"Drug Trafficking on the Southwest Border"

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to appear before the committee on this important issue and to discuss the efforts the U.S. Customs Service to combat the drug threat along the Southwest Border (SWB).

Before presenting specifics on the SWB, I would first like to give the Committee a sense of the overall challenges faced by Customs. On a typical day in fiscal year 2000, Customs personnel processed an average of 1.3 million travelers and 410,000 conveyances. As a result, Customs averaged 65 arrests, 118 narcotics seizures, 11 currency seizures, and 128 other enforcement seizures ranging from munitions and arms to commercial merchandise and child pornography. This translates into the daily seizure of approximately 4,302 pounds of narcotics and $560,000 in U.S. currency.

In fiscal 2000, Customs seized approximately 1.5 million pounds of illegal narcotics, conducted 39,000 investigations, effected more than 24,765 arrests, and seized over $587 million in currency and ill-gotten assets.

Customs is responsible for enforcing more than 600 federal statutes on behalf of 60 federal agencies. In addition to seizing narcotics and dismantling smuggling organizations, Customs enforcement actions protect domestic manufacturing g industries from unfair foreign competition, and help ensure the health and safety of the American public. Through our Strategic Investigations and Anti-terrorism initiatives, Customs continuously fights the battle to prevent proliferant countries, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations from obtaining sensitive and controlled commodities, such as Weapons of Mass Destruction. Customs is also a recognized leader in the investigation of cyberspace-related violations, including child pornography, stolen art and antiquities and intellectual property rights violations.

Notwithstanding Customs' other enforcement responsibilities, drug interdiction and investigation is without a doubt our highest priority, and the SWB is a frontline in this ongoing challenge. The windows of opportunities for would-be drug smugglers along the SWB are staggering. A total of 293 million people, 89 million automobiles, and 4.5 million trucks crossed the SWB in fiscal year 2000. These numbers climb each year as trade increases with our southern neighbor

Individual violators, as well as complex criminal organizations operating on both sides of the border, have been engaged in drug trafficking and drug related money laundering for many years. Historically, the drug trafficking organizations primarily smuggled marijuana and black tar heroin into the U.S. Based upon successful law enforcement pressure in the Caribbean and South Florida, Colombia-based cocaine traffickers expanded their drug smuggling operations to utilize the SWB to import their drugs. Intelligence information indicates that more than 50 percent of the cocaine available in the U.S. enters the country via the SWB.

Several factors make Mexico an attractive location for drug trafficking-, the 2,000-mile land-border with the United States that is comprised of difficult terrain, making it hard to regulate; the powerful criminal organizations that exploit weaknesses in Mexico's law enforcement and judicial systems; and, the rural and mountainous expanses throughout the country that are ideal for the cultivation, processing and manufacturing of illegal drugs.

Sophisticated, well-financed and well-organized drug transportation groups are utilizing a wide variety of modes of conveyance and methods of concealment along the SWB. Customs enforcement records indicate that 79% of all Customs narcotics seizures in FY00 occurred at the southwest border. Marijuana seizures were up 12% to 1.1 million pounds, accounting for 86% of the marijuana seized

nationally by Customs. Approximately 14 percent of the heroin seized in the United States comes from Mexico. An independent study indicates that Mexico is the source of 29 percent of the heroin used in the United States today. Thirty-five percent of the methamphetamine seized by Customs was identified as having been produced in Mexico. Mexico-based organizations have become the most significant distributors of methamphetamine in the U.S.

Recent seizure activity in fiscal years 1999 and 2000 indicates that cocaine is being transferred from Colombian freighters/fishing vessels in the Eastern Pacific (EastPac) to "go-fast" boats destined for Mexico. This cocaine is ultimately smuggled into the U.S. via the SWB. Customs has been involved in the seizure of approximately 78 metric tons of cocaine in the EastPac during the last two fiscal years.

While the total size of our workforce has remained relatively stable in recent years, Customs has been able to reinforce locations on the SWB through the re-direction of resources. These hardworking men and women face an ever-increasing tide of people, vehicles, trucks, trains, planes and cargo.

Our SWB efforts focus on the following areas: improved coordination of federal interdiction efforts; utilization of advanced technology; effective intelligence gathering; and investigative operations. Our actions in these areas have proven to be a more effective response to the drug trafficking organizations that threaten the SWB of the United States.

Smuggling organizations operating along the southern border are abundant, innovative and resilient. Successful dismantling of these organizations requires a comprehensive strategy, one that interfaces the functions and expertise of all enforcement disciplines, Customs has developed the "Investigative Bridge Strategy" to address this problem. It involves:

-- The integration of the Customs enforcement disciplines, investigations, intelligence, interdiction and air/marine operations in an effort to exploit the interrelationship of drug transportation and distribution. By building an "Investigative Bridge" between border smuggling activity and criminal organizations located inland, further dismantling of these groups is possible,

-- The bridge is built when a drug seizure at a Port of Entry (POE) leads to the identification of an organization's inland command and control center and/or additional co-conspirators. Similarly, a bridge is also built when the investigation of an organization develops information leading to a drug interdiction at the border. Through this focus on integration and cohesion, the Investigative Bridge Strategy maximizes enforcement results.

-- Controlled deliveries and Title III wire-tap investigations are an integral part of the strategy. These tools have proven to be extremely effective in identifying members of these organizations, locating narcotic consolidation locations, and uncovering persuasive evidence of criminal activity.

-- Controlled deliveries and cold convoys require close-cooperation between inspectors, agents, and local law enforcement, at the interdiction site-, along delivery routes, and at the ultimate destination. Timely notification and response by agents, coupled with a -seamless hand-off are necessary elements to ensure success of the operation and a "building of the bridge."

-- Develop confidential sources of information and intelligence.

-- The placement of additional U.S. Customs resources in Mexico.

The following enforcement successes demonstrate both the threat and what is being done utilizing our investigative strategy:

-- On February 26, 2001, special agents from Customs and DEA executed a search warrant at a residence in Nogales, AZ, resulting in the discovery of a tunnel leading to the local drainage system. This drainage system is accessible from the international border. A search of the residence led to the seizure of approximately 840 pounds of cocaine.

-- On March 5, 2001, Customs Special Agents from the Office of the Resident Agent in Charge, Charlotte, SC, arrested four members of a Mexican smuggling organization and seized approximately 8,125 pounds of marijuana discovered in an Allied Van Lines moving truck. In addition, special agents seized $1,411,568 in U.S currency.

-- On March 22, 2001, an investigation conducted by the Office of the Resident Agent in Charge, Brownsville, TX, resulted in the seizure of approximately 1,450 pounds of marijuana discovered on a train inbound from Mexico. Eight Mexican males were arrested in connection with this seizure.

-- Between March 15 and March 17, 2001, the Customs Service, Border Patrol and state/local law enforcement conducted a joint operation targeting smuggling activity at Falcon Lake located near Falcon Heights, TX. The operation culminated in the seizure of approximately 8,783 pounds of marijuana that had been smuggled by vessel from Mexico.

Numerous initiatives and task forces exist which embrace the concept of cooperative efforts to enhance our SWB interdiction and investigative efforts, and Customs actively participates whenever possible. Some specific examples of participation include:

-- The Border Coordination Initiative (BCI) ensures comprehensive sharing of border intelligence and the coordination of enforcement operations between Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

-- The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program concentrates federal, state, and local law enforcement efforts in 28 high-threat areas, such as the Southwest border.

-- The Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) focuses combined federal, state, and local law enforcement efforts on significant, high-level drug trafficking and money laundering organizations.

-- The Special Operations Division, a multi agency initiative led by the Department of Justice, acts as a Headquarters based case coordination program. This unit, comprised of investigators and analysts from Customs, DEA, FBI and IRS, has three sections which concentrate on SWB narcotics and money laundering activities.

In the area of International Money Laundering, Customs has established the Money Laundering Coordination Center. This unit has been established to coordinate all federal money laundering enforcement efforts, which have been mandated in the Treasury/Justice Money Laundering Strategy.

From an outbound currency threat perspective, Mexico remains one of the top ten countries of concern for the U.S. Customs Service. Intelligence indicates that large amounts of currency, in excess of tens of millions of dollars, continue to be smuggled out of the U.S. to Mexico.

Private vehicles have long been the dominant mode of choice for transporting illicit proceeds into Mexico. Outbound currency seizures (to include negotiable instruments) numbered over five hundred (500) for the years FY99 and FY00 at the southwest border ports of entry in which the majority were discovered within private vehicles, It is believed that Mexican transportation groups are also using other conveyances to move money to include possibly commercial trucks.

Mexico acts as a "funnel" for illicit currency destined for the Colombian trafficking organizations. Intelligence indicates that staging areas have been set up in many SWB locations to facilitate the consolidation and movement of money between the two countries.

To combat the illicit movement of drug proceeds to Mexico, Customs routinely develops and employs currency interdiction initiatives targeting identified currency smuggling trends. For example:

In fiscal year 2000, Customs implemented Operation Powerplay, a six-week initiative that resulted in the seizure of $11,386,875 and 194 arrests, Of these funds, $3,074,456, or 27 percent, was destined for Mexico.

$5,535,498 and 92 arrests. Of these funds, $1,217,810, or 22 percent, was destined -for Mexico,

On March 28, 2000, the Departments of Treasury and Justice designate t e Texas/Arizona borders with Mexico as a "bulk cash" High Intensity Money Laundering and Related Financial Crime Area (HIFCA). This HIFCA designation focuses not only on the geographic region, but on the system through which large volumes of currency (mainly derived from drug trafficking) is smuggled or moved across the border between the United States and Mexico.

As part of the Bulk Cash HIFCA, Customs is concentrating its efforts not only on the transborder movement of currency involving Mexico, but also on Mexican money remitters and currency exchange houses, or case de cambios, facilitating this activity.

On January 12, 2000, the governments of the United States and Mexico entered into a written agreement detailing the procedures to share information on reports of the cross border movement of currency. This agreement allows for the sharing of Reports of International Transportation of Currency and Monetary Instruments filed with the U.S. Customs Service, and Mexico's companion form, Article 9. Mexico recently changed its reporting regulations to require the reporting of $10,000 U.S. equivalent into or out of Mexico to mirror the United States' currency reporting regulations. Originally, Mexico required only the reporting of $20,000 U.S. equivalent being imported into Mexico.

Customs seized the following quantities of unreported currency bound for Mexico via the SWB:

  • fiscal year 1998: $14,466,186
  • fiscal year 1999: $16,542,761
  • fiscal year 2000: $17,089,183

Some specific examples of enforcement related seizures at the SWB are as follows:

On March 15, 2001, the U.S. Customs San Diego Financial Task Force conducted a joint southbound operation monitoring vehicle traffic exiting the United States at the San Ysidro, CA, Port of Entry. During this operation, a vehicle exam resulted in the seizure of $449,905 in U.S. currency.

On July 31, 2000, during U.S. Customs Operation Powerplay, a vehicle occupied by two Guatemalan citizens was detained while attempting to exit the United States into the Republic of Mexico. A search of the vehicle resulted in the identification of a false compartment found to contain $499,640.00 in United States currency. Both individuals were arrested.

Critical to all law enforcement operations is the routine sharing of tactical intelligence. Intelligence Collection and Analysis Teams (ICATs) have been created throughout the country to analyze smuggling trends and concealment methods, and to expeditiously disseminate intelligence to all border ports and Border Patrol checkpoints. The ICATs are comprised of Customs Special Agents, Customs Inspectors, INS agents, INS analysts, the U.S. Border Patrol and the California National Guard.

Analysis by the ICATs and the intelligence community has been successful in identifying a multitude of smuggling and concealment trends. These include:

Current intelligence from all sources continues to point towards a highly diverse and constantly evolving smuggling environment that poses major threats all along the border. These threats continue to suggest strong pressure by major trafficking groups using all forms of transportation and all available means.

Drugs are being smuggling by a wide array of drug transportation groups that are using all major conveyances and concealment methods including cars, trucks, vans, oversize vehicles, rail cars, private aircraft and vessels, and pedestrians. A continuing problem that Customs faces is the use of sophisticated tunnels along the border.

One of the continuing trends is the proliferation of smaller, more tightly knit organizations that smuggle 100-150 kilos at a time in a rapid fashion. These groups are subsequently storing the drugs in warehouses and other locations, in preparation for the movement of large quantities to the interior of the United States for distribution. Once a sufficient quantity of drugs is acquired, the groups then move the illegal drugs to major urban areas in the interior of the United States for distribution. These areas include Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.

Like the criminal drug trafficking groups from the United States and Colombia that preceded them, organized crime syndicates from Mexico are extremely violent and routinely employ intimidation and the corruption of public officials to achieve their objectives. Much of the drug-related violence that has become commonplace in Mexico has spilled over to communities within the United States.

Traffickers are attempting to design compartments that are impervious to detection. This includes identifying specific conveyances that are difficult for Customs to inspect and pose unique problems from an operational standpoint. Customs also has, determined that traffickers along the border are using specific types of trailers called "low boy trailers", which due to their structure are difficult to examine, may pose problems for some x-ray machines, and are not easily searched by canine units, Recently, a meeting was held in El Paso with officials from railroad firms that conduct cross border trade. These firms indicated they are experiencing a large increase in false compartments discovered in railroad cars used in cross border trade.

The development of new and innovative technology has risen to the forefront of Customs' counter drug efforts. Customs is currently on the second year of a Five-Year Technoloqy Acquisition Plan far the Southern Tier and continues to increase the smugglers risk of detection across the Southern Tier from Los Angeles, California, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Without this across-the-frontier approach, our enforcement efforts in one area will be mitigated by the smugglers' ability to rapidly displace their criminal activity to an area where the threat of detection is lower.

Some of our efforts in the field of non-intrusive technology include:

Aggressively pursuing a variety of technologies designed to complement one another and present a layered defense to smuggling attempts. Such attempts are the direct result of increased funding that began in fiscal year 1999.

We are currently employing 36 pieces of Non-intrusive Inspection (NII) equipment, including:

-- eight (8) mobile truck x-ray systems

-- nine (9) fixed-site truck systems

-- sixteen (16) relocatable Vehicle and Cargo Inspection Systems (VACIS)

-- two (2) mobile truck VACIS

-- one rail VAGIS. This rail VACIS is the first system of its kind.

We are continuing the development of a higher energy x-ray system to examine sea containers as they arrive on our shores, as well as a system to exam large palletized cargo in the air, sea, and land environments.

Customs officers also have a wide range of hand-held tools at their disposal, including:

-- 284 Portable Contraband Detectors (a.k.a. Busters)

-- 135 Optical Fiber Scopes

-- 67 Laser Range Finders

Without consistent funding to operate and maintain these technologies (large and small), benefits will be short-lived.

To assist our enforcement efforts, Customs continues to train Narcotics Detector Dogs at our national training academy. We currently have 543 K-9 teams operating in the field, 368 of which are assigned to the SWB.

In terms of making our land border operations more efficient at narcotics detection, while facilitating the flow of traffic, we have implemented several new programs. In conjunction with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs has installed 236 license plate readers (LPR)

By automating the entry of the license plate data, the LPRs allow the inspecting officer to spend more time examining and questioning the vehicle and its occupants. LPRs have the capability to count the number of vehicles, identify stolen cars, and identify those that are positive IBIS and National Crime Information Center (NCIC) hits: LPRs will also allow Customs and INS to gather intelligence through data mining in order to enhance both inbound and outbound targeting.

The Customs Air and Marine Interdiction Division (AMID) plays a valuable role in Interdiction efforts along the SWB. Customs continues to see short landings of drugladen aircraft in Northern Mexico. To combat this threat, Customs has positioned Citation aircraft in Hermosillo and Monterrey, Mexico, to assist Mexican ground forces in the apprehension of these aircraft and their crews.

Some of the programs currently administered by AMID are:

-- The Air and Marine Interdiction Coordination Center (AMICC). AMICC, located in Riverside, California, provides command, control, communications and intelligence for counter- narcotics and designated homeland defense operations. It utilizes a wide variety of civilian and military radar sites, aerostats, airborne reconnaissance aircraft and other detection assets to provide 24-hour, seamless radar surveillance along the entire southern tier of the U.S., Puerto Rico and into the Caribbean.

-- Training to improve coordination between U.S. and Mexican assets on Interceptor Operations.

-- AMID currently has two advisors assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to enhance in-country coordination, communication and safety.

-- A Mexican liaison has been assigned to the AMICC to further enhance coordination, communication and safety.

The Customs Service relies on the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS), which is currently operated by the Department of Defense, to identify suspect aircraft and vessels inbound to the U.S. The DOD has recently reduced the system by 21% and plans to make another 38% reduction in the system in FY 2002.

The answer to the narcotics smuggling challenge at the SWB border is effective coordination, joint planning and joint implementation. This is precisely what the Border Coordination Initiative (BCI) does and does effectively. The BCI is an approach to integrating the efforts of several of the U.S. Government's border law enforcement agencies. Customs and INS began BCI as a means of creating a seamless process of managing cargo and travelers at our nation's SWB. A process which incorporates the multitude of skills and expertise within each of our organizations, in order to more effectively interdict the flow of narcotics, illegal aliens and other contraband.

The structure of BCI is founded upon the officers at our frontlines. Their input and daily actions keep our efforts focused on those challenges presently facing us along the SWB. We have been able to build upon this information by establishing a solid foundation for the program through:

-- The establishment an Office of Border Coordination, Co-Managed by a "Border Coordinator" from Customs and INS;

-- Setting eight (8) priority areas for the field to focus on: Port Management, Investigations, Aviation/Marine Support, Intelligence, Communications, Technology, Integrity and Performance Measurement;

-- Selecting national Co-Team Leaders from Customs and INS for each of these priority areas and requiring jointly prepared action plans from BCI field managers addressing these topics;

-- Stressing Community involvement by providing and exchanging information with the trade and community groups relating to our enforcement effort;

-- Addressing the concerns of these groups regarding service and the movement of goods and people;

-- Eliminating conventional bureaucratic barriers between agencies in terms of equipment and technology sharing, joint enforcement efforts and procurement;

-- Integrating local and state law enforcement entities into the national interdiction effort;

-- Establishing a scheduled, multi agency reporting system which tracks success, failures and support requests from all SWB areas;

-- Providing funding in support of the innovative and creative means to apprehend violators of our nation's laws along the SWB;

-- Providing overall coordination at and between ports of entry to address drug and alien smuggling.

On behalf of the men and women in federal law enforcement who are engaged on a daily basis in counter-narcotics activities on the SWB, and specifically our U.S. Customs officers, I thank you and your committee for all your support, and the opportunity to present our enforcement activities and recent successes here today.

This concludes my remarks. I will he glad to answer any questions the Committee may have. Thank you.

(end text)


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
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