Tightened border security interfering with illicit drug traffic

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Tightened border security interfering with illicit drug traffic Monday, October 1, 2001


The pound of marijuana Sammy usually sells for pocket money every week or two has to cross hundreds of miles to reach him. The drug changes hands several times along the way, but the most pivotal crossing point is the border between the United States and Canada.

And that's why Sammy is looking for a new supplier.

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the flow of traffic through any crossing -- be it bridge, tunnel, airport gate, harbor, or national border -- has slowed to a crawl, as investigators examine people, packages, and vehicles more closely.

With dozens of guards rummaging through every vehicle and truck, smugglers are reluctant to try moving their goods into the United States, authorities say. As a result, they say, there has been a noticeable decrease in the amount of contraband hitting the streets.

Drug seizures at U.S. borders have dropped dramatically in recent weeks.

From Sept. 11 through 23, inspectors at California's border crossings seized 4,179 pounds of marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs -- a fraction of the more than 29,000 pounds they reported finding during the same period last year.

Results have been similar, although to a lesser degree, at other crossings: Over that same span, inspectors in Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas have seized about 4,500 pounds, compared with more than 15,000 pounds last year.

"Drug traffickers aren't stupid. They have people at the border that monitor what we do," said Kevin Bell, spokesman for the U.S. Customs Service.

As investigators look to thwart more terrorist attacks while gathering intelligence on those responsible for the deadliest strike on American soil, other effects clearly are felt.

"This has caused caution on the part of the drug traffickers," said Ken Hess, the New Jersey State Police bureau chief for narcotics and organized crime. "It might make them more cautious, and they might find an alternate route."

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says South America has surpassed Southwest Asia -- including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran -- as the United States' main supplier of heroin, which is primarily smuggled in one- to two-kilogram shipments by couriers aboard commercial airlines.

The method has become much riskier, however.

Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, Customs and immigration inspectors were at "Alert Level 1," stopping and searching every vehicle and pedestrian entering the United States from Mexico.

They also installed a metal detector at the pedestrian crossing in San Diego and added more inspectors with dogs trained to sniff out drugs in the lines of people and cars.

The measures are in addition to an array of high-tech tools employed along the border, including X-ray-like devices that scan the loads in long-haul trucks, license-plate readers, and scopes designed to find drugs inside "trap cars" that have secret compartments in fuel tanks and dashboards.

"This causes the smugglers clearly to stop. They stop, they try to assess, they probe for new weaknesses," said Bob Brown, acting deputy director of the supply reduction division of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Cocaine, produced primarily in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, moves by land or air to northern Mexico, where it is broken into smaller shipments and smuggled across the border by couriers in tractor-trailers and other large vehicles, authorities said. Some shipments are moved by boat after packages are dropped from the air into the Caribbean.

In the past three weeks, officials say, smugglers have apparently stopped using the borders of Canada or Mexico, unwilling to test the U.S. authorities.

As a result, dealers and users are expected to rely more heavily on the supply already moving within U.S. borders.

Sammy, a Bergen Community College student who did not want his real name used, said his marijuana supplier took several days before acquiring a new source. Instead of coming from Canada, the batch he received last week was hydroponically grown indoors in Oregon.

"Not one of my usual guys [suppliers] had B.C. bud this week," he said, referring to British Columbia, Canada's largest producer of marijuana.

One of the suspected terrorists allegedly crossed the Canadian border into Maine en route to Boston's Logan International Airport. And in December 1999, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian living in Montreal, was stopped trying to enter Washington State with bomb-making materials in his car.

"One guy I know said they were searching every single car and truck up there," Sammy said.

For now, heightened security might mean fewer drugs on the street, law enforcement authorities said.

"The drug dealers are taking a beating," said a Passaic County narcotics investigator. "Nothing's coming in or going out. It's killing their business."

"You're definitely going to see a reduction," said Salvatore Bellomo, a senior assistant prosecutor who works with Passaic County's Narcotics Task Force. "I think people are going to be a little more reluctant to participate as drug couriers."

Another upshot, authorities say, is a price increase.

"What's here is going to be used," said James Wittig, deputy police chief in charge of narcotics in Paterson. "Then you're going to see prices increase."

The effect won't be limited to current supplies, Wittig said. Those traffickers holding their supplies at sites near the borders while waiting to see whether security is going to ease "might stockpile," he said.

"If they're only going to make $10,000 on a kilo, they'll wait until they can make $25,000 on a kilo," Wittig said.

The difference in profit would be about $7 million for one shipment of 500 kilograms of cocaine.

Brown, of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, believes the nation can fight the war on terrorism and the war on drugs simultaneously.

"Clearly there's a nexus between all the criminal groups to include drug-trafficking criminals," he said. "There is scrutiny by intelligence the world over. . . . A lot of what they do as counter-drug work is not exclusive against counterterrorism."

-- K (infosurf@yahoo.com), October 01, 2001

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