Cracking Down on Cargo Shippers

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

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.

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.

Another is the National Guard.

The automated cargo system utilizes data from shippers and other sources. Customs inspectors use the data to prescreen cargo before it arrives in south Florida and other parts of the country.

Mr. Cooperman, who has been trying to outwit smugglers for 19 years, says Customs looks at anything that seems unusual. For example, a first-time importer would draw attention from inspectors. So would an importer who has carried drugs in the past.

``Any change rings bells, any deviation from the norm,'' says Cooperman. ``We also have to be careful about the container itself. Drugs are sometimes concealed in the body of the container.''

Customs' other important weapon is the National Guard. In Florida, 117 guardsmen now work shoulder to shoulder with Customs inspectors in five ports and the Miami airport.

Congress appropriated $40 million in fiscal year 1989 for the guard to help in the drug fight, and the largest recipient of those funds - $3.4 million - was the Florida National Guard. Florida has asked for $8 million in 1990 to expand its antidrug effort.

The Florida Guard not only provides muscle to open and inspect cargo. It also flies surveillance missions over the state to look for illegal patches of marijuana. A recent assignment in Collier County turned up more than 1,000 marijuana plants.

In addition, the Guard provides ground and air transport to civilian law enforcement officials to reach remote areas while on drug operations.

Future responsibilities for the Florida Guard may include radar surveillance of the west coast of the state, as well as surveillance of remote runways to spot drug smugglers. They also may be asked to help search for clandestine chemical laboratories hidden in remote areas.

``We would like to expand our operations,'' says Maj. Bill Douglas, drug support officer for the Florida Guard. ``We feel Florida is a leader in this anti-drug program by the National Guard.''

``The Guard is super,'' says Cooperman. With their help, Customs now checks at least 70 percent of the Miami cargo it considers high risk.

The Guard also helps Customs adjust to new tricks by smugglers. Several years ago, for example, most smuggling was by air. Then it shifted to sea. Now it's moving back to air.

The air shipments of dope move ``very fast,'' hidden among the 100 to 150 legitimate cargo flights that land in Miami every day, Cooperman notes.

Easiest to detect are the shipments in which the smuggler sends drugs by legitimate channels, and hopes it gets through.

More difficult are those involving an internal conspiracy, where airline or airport employees divert a shipment away from Customs as it is being unloaded, and sneak it off the airport.

With help from the Guard, Customs agents have more time to protect the airport from internal conspiracies by meeting more flights, and directing cargo straight into the Customs search areas, Cooperman explains.

It's a day-by-day battle, but Customs officials say that with help from the Guard and others, the picture now is a little brighter.

One in a series of occasional articles about US border problems.

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