November 24, 2009 in Nation/World

Truck program lures smugglers

Promise of a fast pass across the border nets contraband
Christopher Sherman Associated Press
Associated Press photo

A freight truck, right, breezes through a congested border check point using a Free and Secure Trade Lane, or FAST Lane, last month in Laredo, Texas.
(Full-size photo)

LAREDO, Texas — A U.S. program that offers trusted trucking companies speedy passage across American borders has begun attracting just the sort of customers who place a premium on avoiding inspections: Mexican drug smugglers.

Most trucks enrolled in the program pause at the border for just 20 seconds before entering the United States. And nine out of 10 of them do so without anyone looking at their cargo.

But among the small fraction of trucks that are inspected, authorities have found multiple loads of contraband, including nearly 13 tons of marijuana seized in a three-week period last spring.

Some experts now question whether the program makes sense in an environment where drug traffickers are willing to do almost anything to smuggle their shipments into the U.S.

The trusted-shipper system “just tells the bad guys who to target,” said Dave McIntyre, former director of the Integrative Center for Homeland Security at Texas A&M University.

Participating companies agree to adopt certain security measures in exchange for fast entry into the U.S. And some of the 9,500 companies who are part of the system advertise their membership to drum up business, making them targets for smugglers, who can then threaten drivers or offer them bribes.

The most common contraband is marijuana, officials say.

In March, a driver from Tijuana, Mexico, offered inspectors at the U.S. border paperwork showing his truck was filled with toilet paper. But a drug-sniffing dog alerted authorities to five tons of marijuana in a hidden compartment.

A week later, customs officers found three tons of marijuana in trucks carrying auto parts and racks. Five days after that, agents in El Paso, Texas, found more than four tons of marijuana in a tractor-trailer hauling another load of auto parts.

Stephen Flynn, senior fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said truckers do not feel safe rejecting bribes, no matter what agreements their companies have made with the U.S. government.

“The basic vulnerability for a truck driver remains the ‘plata-or-plomo’ dilemma,” Flynn said, using Spanish shorthand for taking a bribe or a bullet.

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