BORROWING from Superman's crime-busting arsenal, the United States Customs Service is installing X-ray machines to peer into cargo trucks for illegal drugs. And US inspectors have a found a new ally south of the border.
With trade between the US and Mexico doubling over the past five years, customs officials on both sides of the Rio Grande are hard pressed to keep the traffic flowing and snag the northbound marijuana, cocaine, and heroin that may be stashed in legal shipments of everything from auto parts to broccoli.
"We've got about 900 loaded trucks and 1,100 empties passing through every day," says Rudy Camacho, US Customs Service director of the San Diego district. "If the North American Free Trade Agreement passes, we could see a tripling of the commerce coming into the US by the end of the decade," Mr. Camacho says.
To make truck searches more efficient, the Customs Service is turning to high technology. Already in use are hand-held scanners and a mobile X-ray unit that inspects individual boxes. Last month, a larger X-ray machine was brought on-line to examine entire pallets of boxes at the Otay Mesa commercial entry point across from Tijuana.
By year's end, at the same location, the Customs Service plans to pass 18-wheelers through a giant, $1.8 million X-ray machine. The Brobdingnagian device takes snapshots of empty trucks and stores them in a computer. When a truck passes through again, any anomalies - such as drugs concealed in gas tanks or tires - will show up.
The technological advantage is welcomed, but Camacho also cannot say enough about the unprecedented cooperation he has been getting lately from his counterparts in Mexico.
Citizens and businessmen have complained for years about corrupt Mexican border officials. Last year, Mexican Finance Minister Pedro Aspe warned customs officials that their inefficient and dishonest practices were hurting the nation's economic growth and free-trade prospects. Six months later, in December, some 2,500 customs inspectors on the US border and at major Mexican airports were replaced overnight.
"I'm in awe of the change," says Camacho. "I've been here 17 years and have never seen this high quality of people. There's now a true sense of urgency and integrity at the top, and you see it in the front line troops."
The new inspectors are younger, must have at least a high school education, and are required to pass a more rigorous training course to be appointed. They are also rotated regularly to prevent connections from developing with corrupt importers.
Camacho meets weekly with his Mexican counterpart and says a range of new, coordinated programs are being developed, such as information exchanges with US and Mexican export-import brokers, which "never would have happened before the change."