LOS ANGELES — Along the Southwest border, where the US has amassed its first line of defense against illegal immigration, another culprit is prowling the sagebrush to sneak past border guards: the foot soldier in Mexico's drug cartels.
Carrying backpacks of illicit drugs, thousands of these human "mules" help to smuggle as much as 70 percent of all illegal drugs into the United States, drug-enforcement officials say.
To Cruz Rodriguez, the US is outmanned and outmaneuvered by sophisticated drug runners armed with cellular phones and scanners that eavesdrop on Border Patrol radios.
"Mexican smugglers here have all these tools, so they see us before we see them," complains the assistant Border Patrol agent in charge of Eagle Pass, a rugged area southeast of San Antonio.
Recent border crackdowns - code-named Operation Gatekeeper and Operation Hold the Line - have stemmed illegal immigration from San Diego to El Paso, Texas. Among those caught in the dragnet have been the drug-runners.
Now Eagle Pass, with only eight agents per eight-hour shift to patrol 56 miles of the border, is a choice point of entry for cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines smugglers, says Mr. Rodriguez
Rodriguez and other embattled law-enforcement personnel from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California will have an opportunity July 10 to tell their stories to powers-that-be from Washington. Gen. Barry McCaffrey (ret.), recently appointed director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDC), will convene the first Southwest Border Counterdrug Conference as a way for federal enforcement officials to examine more effective ways to stop illegal drugs from entering the US from Mexico.
The mission, according to ONDC memos, is to "kick off Stage II of a comprehensive border-control strategy by cutting drugs off at their source." Without divulging what new methods and programs will be examined at today's conference, General McCaffrey has stated that the Clinton administration seeks "a turn-of-the-century border that embodies the rule of law, security, and national cooperation as a bulwark against drug trafficking."
"The idea is for directors of all the leading federal agencies to listen to those law enforcers on the front lines," says Bob Weiner, communications director for the White House's ONDC. Attorney General Janet Reno will co-host the El Paso gathering, which is expected to include Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, FBI director Louis Freeh, Drug Enforcement Administration chief Thomas Constantine, Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner Doris Meissner, and others.
The conference is expected to address ways to coordinate enforcement between US Customs, Border Patrol, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and local and state agencies along the 2,000-mile southern border.
"This will open their eyes as to why the problem is not getting any better," says Rodriguez, a 12-year Border Patrol veteran.
Between Oct. 1, 1995, and April 1, 1996, the Border Patrol at Eagle Pass seized 41,382 pounds of marijuana, compared with 33,291 pounds in the entire preceding year and 15,763 pounds the year before that.
Rodriguez says his managers have been asking Washington for more equipment and personnel for several years. In addition to infrared, night-vision goggles and other technology, he would like to increase his agent staff from 89 to 150.
"The smugglers are very sophisticated, and their intelligence capabilities are very high," says Rodriguez. Smugglers, who typically carry about 100 pounds each in a backpack across the border, get through far more often than they are stopped, he says. Nationally, the US seizes 5 percent of the total drug flow from Mexico, officials estimate.
Whether the flow can be stopped under such conditions is openly debated. Some critics say the El Paso meeting is mere window dressing in an election year.
"The rise of the Mexican drug cartels is a long-standing story that goes on and on," says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "This is the time when there are people in Washington who must begin to look like they are doing something."
Besides the unabated demand for illicit drugs within America, increasing economic ties between the US and Mexico as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are compounding law-enforcement problems, some say. A more heavily traveled border, more ways to legally transfer funds, and weak Mexican banking regulations have helped the Mexican drug trade balloon to a $30 billion-a-year business.