Drug Smugglers Zip Past Agents At US Checkpoints Along Border

Surge in 'port runnings' and busts suggests trafficking is up

IT goes by the innocuous-sounding name of ''port running.'' But the practice of drug smugglers barreling through US Customs' checkpoints in their vehicles to avoid inspection is a dangerous -- and growing -- practice along the United States-Mexican border.

On March 15 in El Paso alone, two cars careened through the row of toll booth-like huts that lines the border. Last year there were 795 ''port runnings'' -- a three-fold increase over the previous year.

The port running, coupled with a growing number of recent high-dollar drug seizures, is prompting authorities to ask: Is the US seeing a new wave of illegal drugs coming across the border?

From October to January last year, the US Border Patrol helped seize 16,800 pounds of cocaine -- 97 percent of its nationwide total -- along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. That volume was almost seven times bigger than in the same period last year, when the southern border accounted for only half of the Border Patrol's US cocaine seizures.

But US officials are cautious in interpreting these eyebrow-raising statistics. For instance, they do not claim to be doing a better job of intercepting smugglers. In fact, the combined number of seizures of cocaine and marijuana fell 11 percent during the last quarter of 1994. But of those, it happened that a greater number were big cocaine shipments.

That's not to say more cocaine than usual is coming across the Mexican border, either. For the past several years, Colombia -- one of the world's largest cocaine producers -- has consistently shipped 60 to 70 percent of its product to the US, with about three-quarters of it entering via Mexico, says James McGivney, chief spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

But one trend is clear: Smugglers are increasingly willing to engage in brazen and dangerous confrontations with Customs Service agents who try to inspect their cars. In response to the stampede of port runners, Customs last month instituted Operation Hard Line. Costing $10 million or more, the operation calls for installation of concrete barriers and hydraulic bollards -- poles that rise out of the ground -- at all 24 border crossings.

Customs will also reassign 40 to 80 narcotics investigators to the Southwest. And it will install a $3-million cargo X-ray system at El Paso, followed by nine other border crossings, as money becomes available.

One such facility, looking like a drive-through wash for tractor-trailers, operates at Otay Mesa in California. Rather than directly identifying drugs, the X-ray allows agents to pinpoint anomalies in a truck's structure where contraband might be concealed -- like holes drilled in the truck's frame or the hollow parts of fenders.

''Quite frankly, it lights it up very clearly,'' says Jay Ahern, director of the Customs Service's anti-smuggling division.

Since Congress's proposed funding for the Customs Service has not increased, the money for Hard Line will come from ''anywhere we can get it,'' says spokesman Steve Duchesne. He says the operation's ''permanent hardening of anti-smuggling efforts'' sets it apart from past operations that only temporarily increased inspections.

OPERATION Hard Line comes at a time when corruption among Mexican police who patrol the border for drug smugglers could be abating. The Customs Service last week seized $9 million from the Houston bank account of Mario Ruiz Massieu, a former top Mexican law enforcement official who also faces charges in Mexico of obstructing the investigation of his own brother's assassination.

Customs is investigating the source of the $9 million, which Mexican newspapers charge came from narco-corruption. ''He might be concealing something bigger, but we don't know what it is,'' says a spokesman for the Mexican government, requesting anonymity.

Last year saw a ''significant decline'' in counternarcotics efforts by the Mexican attorney general's office, where Mr. Ruiz Massieu worked, says a State Department spokesman. And the department didn't find the explanations satisfactory, says the spokesman, who asked not to be identified.

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