Customs Agents Seize On Drug-Busting Idea in Miami
Airlines and federal agencies share data, boost narcotics arrests
MIAMI — The small, quiet man just off a Central American flight opens his suitcase at the Customs counter of Miami International Airport. Inside are the usual items - T-shirts, underwear - except for a small plaque.
What the man doesn't know is that this item is a red flag for US Customs agents. He is politely escorted to a small office area.
There, an agent pulls out a drill and burrows a small hole into the plaque's corner. A white powder pours like salt onto the counter - cocaine.
Drug busts here at the nation's second largest airport aren't unusual. But the pace of seizures is up sharply this year.
Agents here credit the so-called Reinvention Laboratory, which may be a model for other ports of entry into the United States.
This multi-agency project cuts through red tape by sharing computer data, shortens passenger delays, and strengthens law-enforcement's hand at catching drug-smugglers. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Department of Agriculture, and the Public Health Service are the main participants. Thirty airlines have also joined in to share passenger lists to US agents as a way to shorten the wait at the airport, which handles more than 30,000 passengers a day.
"Last summer was a crisis," says Lynn Gordon, director of the US Customs Service for South Florida. "During the worst time, it could take two or three hours [in Customs]. It was clear we needed to do something." So several agencies worked on a solution.
The effort has not only shortened the line at Customs, but it has also upped the amount of drugs confiscated: 37 percent more heroin was seized this year compared with last year. Cocaine seizures are up 43 percent. Although officials acknowledge that increased airport traffic has accounted for some of the numbers, much of the credit goes to the new system.
Especially effective have been "rovers," agents dressed in jeans and Hawaiian shirts who walk among passengers awaiting their bags on carousels. The agents, men and women, watch for signs of nervousness or fear - signs that a passenger might be smuggling contraband into the United States from "high risk" countries such as Colombia and Jamaica.
Rovers are trained to "psych out" passengers to determine whether they carry drugs, says Tom Roland, a supervisory inspector. A beefy, personable man with short hair, Mr. Roland demonstrates his technique by role-playing with a reporter:
"Where you going?"
"Let's say Orlando."
"You're going to Disney World?"
"Where are your husband and your children?"
"They just left the country."
"You're going to Disney World without them?" he says with mock incredulity.
The shakedown game then begins. Roland scans for signs of nervousness: rapid, shallow breathing, rapid-eye movement, and perspiration. Sometimes he even breathes in sync with the passenger to check for a fast heart beat. "Your body goes into symptoms," he explains. "Often the passenger's eyes go to the drugs [being smuggled]."
As he speaks, a man in handcuffs walks by. An agent had taken him for an X-ray, which revealed 72 pellets of heroin in his body. Roland says that 80 percent of the X-rays are positive for drugs. Back in the Customs area, another man has been stopped. A false bottom in a large plastic case turns up more cocaine.
Outside on the Tarmac where planes roll in, Lucky, a large yellow Labrador retriever, starts his shift. He jumps over suitcases, bags, and clothing hangers, sniffing them on a moving belt like a chubby gerbil. He stops at one, scratching, then biting it - a suitcase with cocaine residue.
Some resources, such as Lucky, aren't new, just better utilized, Roland says. One new twist, however, has been crucial: Many of MIA's airlines cooperate by submitting computerized passenger lists to Customs immediately after flight takeoff. That info goes into a federal computer base that matches prior arrests, convictions, warrants and other information about passengers from sources such as Interpol and the FBI.
"We know who we're looking for before they come in," says Gordon, adding that the process has withstood court challenges.
Still, Customs experts estimate they only arrest half the carriers attempting to enter with drugs. The next step is to persuade smaller, noncomputerized airlines from South American countries to work with the Customs system.
This would also protect passengers from the inconvenience of the process. "It's not our business to harass," said Gordon. "Ninety-nine percent of the passengers are not doing anything wrong. We try to be invisible."