The front line against border violence

June 22, 2009 12:16:25 PM PDT
The front line in the war on drugs and weapons is on the Texas border with Mexico. [READ MORE: Tom Abrahams blogs about his trip to Laredo to cover border violence]

Thousands of agents and officers with Homeland Security are on the job right now, protecting that border. And now, we're getting complete access to the inner workings of the operations run by Homeland Security.

We traveled to Laredo, the country's largest inland port on the U.S.-Mexico border. And what we found is the effort to stop smugglers is a 24-hour-a-day job that requires the expertise of thousands of men and women.

They know that what they do keeps us safe, not just those on the border, but people living in cities all over the country, from Houston to New York and Los Angeles to Miami.

Laredo is a Texas border town, a gateway in and out of the United States for workers, tourists, and criminals.

"You name it, we've seen it," said Joe Uribe with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

It is the front line, the first and last line of defense and it's where we went to see the battle against drug cartels first hand.

"It's very challenging on a day to day basis to keep the staffing up," said Laredo Port Director Gene Garza.

And it's where we went to see the battle against drug cartels first hand.

It's the largest commercial port on the U.S./Mexico border. And every year, more than 1.5 million trucks make their way up the bridge into Texas and into the United States.

Laredo has four bridges, two cargo lots, a rail line and an airport connecting it to Mexico. All of them are controlled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection under the direction of Garza.

"Is the job getting harder day by day?" we asked him.

"It doesn't get harder. Sometimes it gets challenging because of the type of compartments that we find," he said. "The smugglers are going to a deeper type of concealment and that takes a lot more effort."

Inspections officers have just seconds to assess potential threats.

"His or her discretion, their intuition, their interviewing skills," said Mucia Dovalina with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

New technology is helping them.

"The imaging equipment has really made a difference in how we do our work out here," Garza told us.

The equipment includes new passport readers installed this month that allow checkpoint officers to know a lot about someone before they roll up for an inspection. Hidden radiation detectors and new license plate readers also help as would-be border crossers roll north.

Nowadays, there is not just a concerted effort to check the people and the vehicles traveling north from Mexico into the U.S., but also those who are traveling southbound out of the United States.

More and more resources are in the southbound lanes now because of the southerly flow of cash and weapons. Also, agencies not normally tasked with manning border crossings are helping increase the presence heading out of the country.

"Every couple of weeks, we see something new, something different," said Uribe. "You name it, we've seen it come across these cargo facilities now."

"We've found narcotics just about everywhere," Uribe continued. "From differentials, dummy differentials in trailers, to tires, to ceilings, floors."

Nationally, the United States has 327 ports of entry and 144 Border Patrol check points On a typical day, Customs and Border Protection will seize 7,621 pounds of narcotics and more than $295,000 in undeclared cash.

In just the last few weeks, Laredo border officers and agents have found drugs, money, and guns. They're hauled in cars, trucks, buses, and tractor trailers hauling commodities across the border one direction or another, some of it possibly headed through Houston.

"On an average day, we'll have almost 4,000 inbound trailers that we're dealing with," said Uribe. "We have a lot of X-ray technology. We use density technology; different tools that are available to us."

The technology, no matter how new, can do only so much though. Ultimately it is the people.

"When it all comes down to the nitty-gritty it's the officer that makes any case," said Dovalina.

They're tasked with a seemingly impossible mission on an expansive border against an unseen enemy who will not quit.

"While the threats may change, the inspections remain the same," said Garza. "Our officers are dedicated and they do this job every single day."

So now you've seen what goes on at the official ports of entry, the places where people are supposed to cross the border. But there are hundreds of miles between some of those ports, where smugglers try to cross unseen. They're tracked by the Border Patrol.

We learned Tuesday that on Wednesday, Homeland Security will add a new border czar. The announcement will be made during Secretary Janet Napolitano's visit to the southwest.

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