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In recent years, cross-border trucking from Mexico into the U.S. has boomed, with more than 5 million truck crossings in 2012.
For drug smugglers, getting a truckload of illegal narcotics past border authorities means potentially huge profits. At the San Diego port of entry, half of the drugs seized are discovered in cargo trucks.
From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Jill Replogle of Fronteras Desk reports on the role of cross-border trucking in the movement of goods north, and how the federal government and private trucking companies are trying to secure their loads against ever-changing smuggling strategies.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. If drug smugglers can get a truckload of illegal narcotics across the U.S. border from Mexico, it means potentially huge profits. But smugglers are often up against two levels of security: federal border agents and those who work for private export and shipping companies.
With more than five million trucks crossing into the U.S. from Mexico last year, there is plenty of work for inspectors. From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, Jill Replogle of the Fronteras Desk reports from San Diego.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language).
JILL REPLOGLE: This is the control room of a cross-border trucking company. Dispatchers spend their days talking over the radio with drivers and poring over computer screens constantly monitoring the whereabouts and activities of their 150 trucks.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We got it on the map. Every time the driver is moving, is standing by, stopping (unintelligible), stuff like that, we - exactly we know where the truck is at.
REPLOGLE: This is the director of operations for the company based in Otay Mesa, south of San Diego, smack up against the U.S.-Mexico border fence. The company also have offices and a truck yard on the Mexico side of the border. The company president asked that we not identify the firm or its employees out of security concerns.
The company is meticulous about security measures. All of its trucks are equipped with GPS monitors. Exact routes for the trucks are established from a warehouse in Mexico to the customer in the U.S., and software tells dispatchers if a truck goes off that route or stops for more than two minutes. The trucking firm even hires private investigators to follow trucks at random to make sure they're not involved in anything illicit.
Is drug smuggling the major security risk?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes. That is the highest, highest in our industry.
REPLOGLE: And actually the risks here are multiple. Trucking companies have to be careful about who they're working for. A seemingly standup exporter could be sneaking drugs and shipments of, say, plastic toys, or a rogue company driver could be surreptitiously working for the cartels or maybe forced to work for them.
These risks have grown along with an 80 percent increase in truck traffic at the U.S.-Mexico border since 1995. That's the year after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. This explosion in trade means more opportunities for drug smugglers to get their loads across the border undetected, and while at least at San Diego border crossings, more drugs are detected in passenger cars, commercial trucks yield seizures, on average more than 1,800 pounds per bust last year.
Here at the Otay Mesa commercial port of entry, customs and border protection officers process on average more than 2,000 trucks a day, and border agents have seen drugs hidden in just about everything.
JOE GARCIA: In cans of jalepenos.
REPLOGLE: This is Immigration and Customs Enforcement Deputy Special Agent Joe Garcia(ph).
GARCIA: You see it mixed in with fabric softener or laundry detergent.
REPLOGLE: Border agents at Otay Mesa first check a truck's manifest when it gets to the head of the line. The manifest tells the agent about the truck, who's driving it and what it's carrying. Agents will often chat up a drive to make sure he or she doesn't seem nervous or shifty. Agents may send a truck to secondary inspection, where it could go through a giant X-ray machine or have its cargo offloaded.
Several hours after we visited the Otay Mesa commercial crossing recently, agents found 1,600 pounds of marijuana concealed in a shipment of limes. If drugs do make it across the border, their likely first stop is Los Angeles.
STEVE WOODLAND: Los Angeles is really a trans-shipment point.
REPLOGLE: Steve Woodland leads the Southern California Drug Task Force for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
WOODLAND: We are centrally located to be able to push the narcotics from California in multiple directions.
REPLOGLE: Woodland helped dismantle a high-volume drug ring in August. The smugglers brought meth, cocaine and heroin across the border in PVC pipes hidden inside the axles of big-rig trucks. During the two-and-a-half-year investigation, law enforcement seized more than 2,400 pounds of meth, that's around 11 million doses.
Back at the trucking company's yard in Otay Mesa, a security guard runs a large round mirror with a long handle underneath the perimeter of a truck to make sure there's nothing attached to the bottom. The security guard also taps the truck's wheels with a baseball bat. Tires that have something hidden inside make a distinct sound.
And the company's operations manager tells me they do extensive background checks on their drivers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Especially if you're moving from one side to another, you've got to have security in everything, in every single little thing, so...
REPLOGLE: There's just too much at stake to take any risks, he says. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Jill Replogle in San Diego.
YOUNG: And Jill comes from the Fronteras Desk. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.