Calls for Greater Federal Action

SOUTHERN BORDER. Priorities include better coordination of security efforts, firmer diplomacy, and aid to Mexico

WELCOME to smuggler country - USA. To the west lies bustling San Diego. To the east, the San Ysidro Mountains. But here along the Otay Mesa, the land is flat, uncrowded, and perfect for smuggling dope, illegal aliens, exotic birds, or anything else that will bring big bucks.

A busy Mexican highway runs parallel to the United States border through the mesa. In many places there is no fence, no Border Patrol, no barrier to a speeding car or truck. Smugglers jump the border here, and within an hour are halfway to Los Angeles.

Otay's problems with drugs and violence are not unique. Federal lawmen complain that the southern frontier, from Florida to California, is a sieve for criminals.

In preparing this series of articles about the southern border, interviews were conducted with dozens of experts, including border patrolmen, agents of the Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), military officers, federal wildlife agents, White House officials, local police, congressmen, sheriffs, mayors, and scholars.

Again and again, one hears plaintive cries for help. Lawmen say the borders are out of control. Here in the battle zone, officers say Washington is taking a business-as-usual approach, despite the drug crisis. Some examples:

In Brownsville, Texas, Customs officers are working with outdated facilities designed to inspect 50 trucks a day. Yet truck traffic has risen to more than 400 trucks a day. As a result, Customs inspects only 10 percent of incoming trucks, even though lawmen say this is a major route for cocaine shipments.

In San Ysidro, Calif., the number of illegal aliens entering the US began rising sharply this year. Aliens are a major source of drug smuggling. Yet the Bush administration, despite antidrug rhetoric, has allowed the number of Border Patrol agents along the California border to decline.

In Washington, President Bush appointed a top drug fighter, William Bennett, but failed to give him power to coordinate the many antidrug agencies. As a result, lawmen complain that there still is inadequate sharing of the most basic intelligence information among federal agencies.

Sources along the border insist that urgent action is needed by Washington. To this end, they offer several suggestions to policymakers at the White House and in Congress.

1. Strengthen border defenses.

Months ago, federal officials called for construction of a ditch along the Otay Mesa to stop smuggler vehicles. But there was an outcry from Mexico. So Washington dropped the idea.

However, the Border Patrol, on its own initiative, used a backhoe to dig a small ditch, four feet deep, two feet wide, along a short portion of the border. Smugglers, driving at night with lights out, cannot see the ditch. Several have been caught.

Border agents ask: Who sets US border policy, Washington or Mexico City?

2. Give Dr. Bennett more clout.

The so-called drug czar needs the authority to make different agencies, like the Customs Service and DEA, work together. At the present time, for example, many agents along the border complain that the DEA, which coordinates drug intelligence, hoards all the good information for itself.

``Their intelligence tips are worth nothing,'' complains a Border Patrolman in Rio Grande, Texas. ``We have to develop our own intelligence. Theirs is just a waste of our time.''

3. Increase diplomatic pressure.

US communities are struggling with serious problems - from water pollution to crime - that originate in Mexico. For example, Mexico dumps millions of gallons of sewage daily into rivers it shares with the US.

Ironically, American officials say Mexican politicians in some cities are so stubborn, or nationalistic, that they won't even discuss the situation, or accept US financial help. In some areas, Mexican police are equally uncooperative on crime problems.

Local officials, such as Sheriff Oren Fox of Imperial County, Calif., say the State Department needs to stand up strongly for US interests. One positive sign: a recent US-Mexico agreement to clean up some of the pollution in the Tijuana River.

4. Increase federal manpower.

Whether it's the Border Patrol, Customs, or the Coast Guard, US lawmen are being overwhelmed by the crime problem along the border.

Congress responded to the drug problem by appropriating funds to expand use of the National Guard to search cargoes. But the Customs Service says it cannot make even greater use of the guard because soldiers need supervision by additional trained agents, who are not available.

5. Step up military efforts.

Since Secretary Richard Cheney took over at the Department of Defense, the Pentagon has taken a new interest in protecting the borders. Navy and Air Force planes are now looking for drug smugglers' aircraft. And 50 marines are patrolling the Southwest border.

Border officers say this helps. But the problem is so immense that regular law enforcement manpower deployed along the borders needs to be at least doubled, and military assistance expanded. One Pentagon official notes that just 1 percent of the defense budget ($3 billion) might be enough virtually to seal the border with Mexico.

6. Bolster Mexico's economy.

Mexico's battered economy produces only 200,000 new jobs a year, but 1 million young people enter the work force annually. This imbalance creates pressure for Mexicans to enter the US illegally in search of work, or to engage in criminal activity, such as drug smuggling.

In recent months, Mexico has loosened restraints on free enterprise, which may create many new jobs. Some analysts think the US could help, however, by buying more from Mexico, and investing in the Mexican economy.

7. Assist US communities.

Some cities are hit hard by the costs of illegal drugs and aliens. A study several years ago by the American Immigration Control Foundation concluded that for every 1 million illegal immigrants communities pay as much as $262 million a year in education benefits, $93 million for health care, $115 million for welfare, $181 million for unemployment benefits, and $1.5 billion in displacement of US workers.

Those figures are disputed by others, including some federal economists, who claim that illegal immigration brings an economic windfall to the US. However, there is little dispute that some cities, such as Miami and Los Angeles, are burdened by welfare and health costs caused by illegals.

There is wide agreement among local officials that because Washington's policies permit illegals to enter the US, the federal government should pick up the costs of such immigration.

Finally, border experts have a word of advice to US citizens.

They observe that anger about border problems is growing in Texas, California, and elsewhere. But officers working along the frontier say there won't be decisive action from Washington until citizens make their anger felt.

So far, the mail bags on Capitol Hill are empty.

US BORDER REPORT Listed below are the topics and publication dates of the stories in the ``US Border Report'' series, by staff writer John Dillin and staff photographer Peter Main. 1. America's Porous Borders. Oct. 10 2. US Border Patrol losing manpower. Oct. 11 3. Southern governors speak out on drug threat. Oct. 16 4. Fighting drugs: the war at sea. Oct. 19 5. Fighting drugs: the military's role. Oct. 24 6. Fighting drugs: the war in the air. Oct. 27 7. Fighting drugs: smuggling in cargo shipments. Oct. 30 8. Congressman Glenn English on Bush drug war. Nov. 3 9. Prisons overburdened due to drug traffic. Nov. 6 10. Crack gangs extend reach into small towns. Nov. 8 11. Boot camps for drug offenders. Nov. 10 12. `Red Dog' police stem drug flow in Atlanta. Nov. 20 13. Louisiana drug trial tests court's resources. Nov. 22 14. Crime increases along Mexican border. Nov. 27 15. Illegal immigration out of control. Nov. 30 16. INS orders patrolmen not to talk to press. Dec. 5 17. Wildlife smuggling to US on the rise. Dec. 7 18. Behind the upturn in illegal immigration. Dec. 11 19. The art of tracking drug couriers. Dec. 12 20. Mexico's economic problems challenge US. Dec. 13 21. Border open to terrorist infiltration. Dec. 21 22. Drug traffic ``out of control'' on Texas border. Dec. 22 23. Illegal immigration surges in '89. Dec. 27 24. Pollution spills over border from Mexico. Dec. 28 25. Series wrap-up: what US must do. Today

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