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Cracking Down on Cargo Shippers

An automated data system and the National Guard help agents check `high risk' freight. T-SHIRT BY T-SHIRT

By John DillinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 1989


DID you ever wonder how smugglers get tons and tons of cocaine into the United States? Well, consider this: 1. Every year, 8 million containers of general cargo are shipped into the US.

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2. US Customs inspects only 3 percent of those containers.

Drug traffickers, who know a good opportunity when they see one, are sending as much as 50 percent of all cocaine shipments through legitimate sea and air cargo carriers. Customs officials estimate that could eventually rise to 80 percent.

US officials, concerned that the nation's air and sea cargo could turn into a floodtide of illegal narcotics, are cracking down on shippers, and beefing up inspections.

The intensified US effort can be seen here at Miami International Airport.

In a dark, steamy warehouse on the edge of a runway, dozens of Florida national guardsmen and Customs agents rip open hundreds of air-freight containers searching for drugs.

Sweat-drenched guardsmen work in one room tearing open box after box of red and blue T-shirts from Peru. One by one the T-shirts are removed and inspected. Then they are returned to the boxes, which are resealed with special US Customs tape.

On this day, as a reporter and photographer tour the warehouse, Customs has targeted these shipments, all from South America, for 100 percent inspection. Every item, including personal baggage, will be hand-searched.

But the immense volume of air and sea cargo confronts government drug-fighters with a staggering problem. The rapid growth of world trade has simply overwhelmed the nation's 5,800 Customs inspectors.

``If you stood all our inspectors end to end, you couldn't get them across one state of the United States,'' notes a senior Customs official, who asked that he not be identified by name.

``I think Customs would like to ... inspect everything that came into the United States. But in this day and age, that is not a realistic expectation.''

Seaborne cargo, for example, now arrives in huge, truck-size containers. These, sealed at factories abroad, are lifted by cranes off ships directly onto special trucks for delivery in the US.

The containers were designed to prevent pilferage and improve efficiency. But if a smuggler can get drugs into a container while it is still abroad, the chances of discovery are reduced.

``Cargo has been a real problem for us over the years, and especially the last few years, because of containerized cargo,'' says the Customs official. ``Just to get at the cargo is more difficult than it was. It costs money to pull a bulk container out of the bottom of a ship. In fact, it could cost you $30,000 [in manpower expenses] just to get at it. And you don't even know if there is anything [drugs] in it.''

Customs officials also worry that in a nation known for free trade and open borders, an across-the-board crackdown on smugglers could tie up ports, and raise an outcry from the public.

The situation isn't hopeless, however. Howard Cooperman, regional director of the office of inspection and control for Customs in Miami, says at least two factors give inspectors a fighting chance against smugglers.

One is an automated cargo system, through which Customs targets suspicious shipments.