Program to help truckers attracts drug smugglers
LAREDO — A U.S. program that offers trusted trucking companies speedy passage across American borders has begun attracting just the sort of customers who place a premium on avoiding inspections: Mexican drug smugglers.
Most trucks enrolled in the program pause at the border for about 20 seconds before entering the United States. And nine out of 10 do so without anyone looking at their cargo.
But among the fraction of trucks that are inspected, authorities have found multiple loads of contraband, including 8 tons of marijuana seized during one week in April.
Some experts now question whether the program makes sense at a time when drug traffickers are willing to do almost anything to smuggle their shipments into the U.S.
The trusted-shipper system "just tells the bad guys who to target," said Dave McIntyre, former director of the Integrative Center for Homeland Security at Texas A&M University.
Participating companies agree to adopt certain security measures in exchange for fast entry into the U.S. They are required to put their employees through background checks, fence in their facilities and track their trucks. They also are asked to work with subcontractors who have been certified under the program, which is run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The government keeps the list of participants secret, citing national security and trade secrets. But some of the 9,500 companies who are part of the system advertise their membership to drum up business, making them targets for smugglers, who threaten drivers or offer them bribes.
More than half of U.S. imports now come from companies in the program, called the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. Mexican trucking companies make up only 6 percent of global membership in the system, but they account for half of its 71 security violations during the past two years.
Mexican trucking companies face higher scrutiny than others. They get a full customs inspection every year, instead of every three years like other participating companies.
The most common contraband is marijuana, officials say.
In a 24-hour period in April, customs officers in Laredo found 3 tons of marijuana in trucks carrying auto parts across two bridges. Five days after that, agents in El Paso found more than 4 tons of marijuana in a tractor-trailer hauling auto parts.
In July, the director of the program became alarmed by the number of large drug seizures along the border and issued a security bulletin asking participating companies to redouble their efforts against smuggling.
Stephen Flynn, senior fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said truckers do not feel safe rejecting bribes, no matter what agreements their companies have made with the U.S. government.
"The basic vulnerability for a truck driver remains the 'plata-or-plomo' dilemma," Flynn said, using Spanish shorthand for taking a bribe or a bullet.
John Chaffin, a trade lawyer near San Diego, said he had worked with one Mexican trucking company that wanted to join the program but then pulled out. He suspects participating companies feel pressure from drug gangs to help them smuggle drugs into the United States.
"Some Mexican truckers have figured out, 'I don't want someone thinking I'm a better target than someone else,'" Chaffin said.
Mexican authorities suspect a man who owned a participating trucking company in Aguascalientes, Mexico, was killed by drug gangs in July 2008. The slaying of Gerardo Medrano Ibarra is unsolved.
Roberto Ramirez de la Parra, then chief of operations for Mexico's customs agency, told El Norte newspaper that exporters last year became worried that organized crime was targeting U.S.-certified companies.
In the past, smugglers created their own fly-by-night businesses for trafficking, he said. Now they use major trucking corporations.
By Christopher Sherman
Tuesday, November 24, 2009