Drug trafficking on southwest border

Margo Turner’s Column


A congressional panel is exploring steps that the federal government can take to reduce record levels of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine smuggled every year into the United States from Mexico along the 2,000-mile-long southwest border.

Cocaine remains the major narcotic brought illegally into the United States. In the late 1970s, the majority of all cocaine entering this country was smuggled through south Florida. Drug smuggling later expanded into the Caribbean. The federal government responded with successful law enforcement forces that substantially restricted the drug trafficking routes. By the mid-1980s, Colombian drug traffickers had teamed up with their counterparts in Mexico. The flow of cocaine and other illegal narcotics into the United States shifted from Florida to Mexico and across the southwest border.

A multi-million dollar business for Mexico-based kingpins and Colombian cartels, the border drug trade impacts enforcement efforts and the federal court system, according to law and judicial officials who testified in late March at a hearing before the House crime subcommittee chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

“Over the past few years, Mexican-based trafficking organizations have succeeded in establishing themselves as the preeminent poly-drug traffickers of the world, using our shared border to smuggle illicit drugs into the United States,’ Donnie R. Marshall, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), stated.

“These organizations present an increasing threat to the national security of this country, with voluminous amount of drugs, violent crime and the associated corruption of public officials in Mexico,” Marshall said. “Mexico is the largest transshipment point of South American cocaine destined for the United States and 65 percent of this cocaine reaches American cities via the U.S./Mexico border.”

Marshall pointed out that Mexico remains a major source country for heroin and marijuana. Many of the same Mexico-based drug trafficking organizations that smuggle cocaine into the United States are also utilized by Colombian cartels to transship other drugs such as marijuana and methamphetamine to the United States, he noted.

The volume of commercial and pedestrian border traffic continues to grow, playing an integral role in this country’s economy while at the same time creating an infinite number of opportunities for drug trafficking organizations to introduce their illegal goods into the United States commerce, Marshall said. Last year, 293 million people, 89 million cars, 4.5 million trucks and 572,583 rail cars crossed the southwest to and from the United States and Mexico.

“Illegal drugs are hidden in all modes of conveyances, including the compartments of cars and trucks and the bodies and baggage of pedestrians,” Marshall said. “Some organizations may employ couriers who cross the desert in armed pack trains or who act as human ‘mules’ by strapping the drugs into their bodies.”

Drug trafficking organizations use extremely sophisticated concealment methods or simply have the drug-laden package tossed over border fences and whisked away on foot or by vehicle, he said. The organizations also utilize boats and ships to position their stash of drugs close to the border for transfer to the United States.

The United States Customs Service seizes narcotics and dismantles smuggling organizations along the southwest border in addition to protecting domestic manufacturing industries from unfair foreign competition and helping to ensure health and safety of the American public, Customs Assistant Commissioner John C. Varrone told the House panel.

To combat the drug threat along the southwest border, Varrone said the Customs Service focuses on improved coordination of federal interdiction, utilization of advanced technology, effective intelligence gathering and investigative operations.

Criminal cases involving drug trafficking also have increased in the southern Texas, western Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southern California district courts, Judge W. Royal Furgeson Jr. said.

Furgeson, a district court judge in the western district of Texas, noted that the number of criminal cases filed in the border courts has increased by 161 percent. Drug prosecutions in the border courts more than doubled between 1994 and 2000 and immigration prosecutions increased more than seven-fold during that same period, he said.

“The average criminal caseload per district judge in the border courts is more than quadruple the average for the rest of the nation,” Furgeson said. “We have, in short, reached our limits to how many criminal cases can be prosecuted in the five border courts with the current number of authorized federal judgeships. We are desperately out manned and underfunded. In fact, in sufficient judicial resources drastically restrict the number of cases that could most likely be prosecuted if we had more judges.”

Michael D. Scott, chief of the Criminal Law Enforcement Division of the Texas Department of Public Safety, testified that appropriate levels of federal funding across the board in interdiction, investigation, prosecution and courts are critical for the criminal justice system to maintain a “holding” action. At the same time, prevention, education and treatment professionals should “develop and implement successful demand reduction strategies,” Scott said.

“Simply interdicting the drugs along the border is not the answer,” he said. “Each interdiction case made by the U.S. Custom Service or by the Border Patrol requires follow-up investigation and the DEA is inadequately staffed to meet these investigative demands. Oftentimes, DEA agents are forced to simply process the ‘mules’ apprehended by Customs and the Border Patrol because they have little or no time to conduct the critical follow-up investigation that might lead to the origin of the illegal drug shipment.”

All the enforcement efforts in the world cannot solve the drug problem in the United States, Scott said. The solutions require initiatives from a variety of mutually exclusive sources, including public health and treatment providers, schools, churches, community organizations, the military as well as law enforcement.

“There is no question that federal, state and local drug enforcement agents along the border often feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the challenges they face trying to reduce the flow of drugs into this country,” Scott hold the crime panel. “However, I commit to you today that the officers along the border charged with the interdiction, investigation and prosecution of drug traffickers have not admitted defeat and continue to risk their lives daily in an effort to reduce the availability of drugs in this country.”