Recent Bust Warns Trucking Industry To Beware at Border

by Jana Ritter - Published: 9/17/2013

On Sept. 6, 2013, CBP officers at the Otay Mesa commercial port of entry discovered 1,623 pounds of marijuana in a shipment of limes and authorities are warning trucking companies that they have to be careful about who they're working for. A seemingly stand-up exporter could be sneaking drugs in 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, the year after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect.

Truck inspection

A trucking company's offices on the United States side are smack up against the U.S.-Mexico border fence. It also has offices and a truck yard in Tijuana, Mexico which makes this trucking firm 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 firm even hires private investigators to follow trucks at random to make sure they're not involved in anything illicit.

The explosion in recent trade means more opportunities for drug smugglers to get their loads across the border undetected. And while, at least at San Diego area border crossings, more drugs are detected in passenger cars, commercial trucks yield huge seizures — on average, more than 1,800 pounds of drugs per bust last year. At the Otay Mesa commercial port of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers process more than 2,000 trucks a day. And border agents have seen drugs hidden in just about everything. “In cans of jalapeños, in cans of cheese,” said Joe Garcia, deputy special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Investigations. “You see it mixed in with fabric softener, or laundry detergent,” he said.

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. An agent may chat up a driver 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.

If drugs do make it across the border, their likely first stop is Los Angeles. “Los Angeles is really a transshipment point,” said Steve Woodland, who leads the Southern California Drug Task Force for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “We are centrally located to be able to push the narcotics from California in multiple directions,” Woodland said. Woodland helped dismantled 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. He warns truck drivers and firms not to become the next unknowing participant driving these operations.