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Documents: Customs Warned Year Ago of Smuggling Risk

February 25, 1995

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ A federal program intended to speed the flow of cargo from Mexico by relaxing inspections may have become a drug smuggler’s freeway, according to interviews and records obtained by The Associated Press.

The U.S. Customs Service designed the Line Release program to allow approved companies to transport hundreds of shipments across the border without the usual intensive inspection.

``It’s a superhighway for smugglers. Line Release is a program that could have been designed for smugglers,″ said a veteran inspector who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from superiors.

Former inspector Mike Horner agreed: ``We are developing systems that are advantageous to the smuggler and a disadvantage to the inspectors.″

Line Release was created for use by reputable companies in Canada that regularly ship merchandise to the United States. Customs began using the program with Mexico in 1987, and it has grown rapidly with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In 1994, 2.7 million Line Release vehicles crossed the Mexican border, a 44 percent increase over 1993, said Customs spokesman Steve Duchesne.

Participants can send up to 249 shipments across the border before undergoing an inspection. Barring problems, the company does not undergo intensive inspection again until its 500th shipment.

While Customs runs background checks on businesses that ship goods under Line Release, it’s less thorough in checking trucking companies and drivers.

That makes it easy for drug traffickers to hire truckers to mix narcotics in with legitimate cargo, inspectors say.

Finally, the companies admitted to Line Release don’t always fit Customs’ low-risk criteria, documents suggest.

Customs Commissioner George Weise and Lee Brown, director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, scheduled a weekend visit to the Customs port in San Diego in response to concerns about drug trafficking.

Operation Hard Line doesn’t modify Line Release, but it will move up to 80 Customs inspectors to the United States’ 2,000-mile southwestern border.

``We intend to blitz the ports along this border with roving inspectors and canine enforcement officers,″ Weise said at a news conference less than 40 yards from Tijuana, Mexico. ``We also intend to open trucks and inspect more vehicles.″

Among Line Release critics is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who grilled directors of the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration about Customs’ weaknesses during a Judiciary Committee hearing this month.

But Weise and other top Customs officials were warned of the program’s shortcomings a year ago in a memorandum from the Treasury Department’s Office of the Inspector General.

The memo was written after Customs inspectors approached investigators with concerns that smugglers were benefiting from the program.

Charles Winwood, who oversees Customs’ cargo operations from Washington, acknowledged the agency got the memo, but said Customs already was aware problems existed and was working on remedies, such as increased use of drug-sniffing dogs and X-ray equipment to screen commercial vehicles.

``We’re not relying on good will,″ he said. ``Are there checks and balances? There are some. Do we need to improve? Yes, we do.″

Customs records show that less than 2,000 pounds of cocaine was seized from commercial trucks along the Mexican border in 1994, compared to 7,708 pounds in 1993.

Cocaine seized from non-commercial trucks on the southern border increased by about 10 percent, from 37,131 pounds in 1993 to 41,312 pounds in 1994, Duchesne said.

Customs intelligence records obtained by the AP show that Line Release participants include the Hipodromo de Agua Caliente, a Tijuana race track. Although races are no longer held at Agua Caliente, the track is approved by Customs to ship horses across the border under Line Release.

The track’s part owner, Jorge Hank Rhon, was named in a 1990 Customs intelligence document as having possible connections to money laundering. And he was fined $25,000 in 1992 for trying to smuggle a rare white tiger from the United States to Mexico.

Customs officials said the allegations alone weren’t enough to exclude Hank’s company from the program.

They also said Agua Caliente’s participation in Line Release was not considered a problem because the horses are checked by a veterinarian before entering the U.S. to safeguard against drug smuggling.

Hank, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

Rudy Camacho, commissioner of Customs’ western region, said the decrease in commercial seizures and the corresponding increase in non-commercial seizures last year is evidence Customs is driving smugglers away from the Line Release.

``That tells me we have the right customers on Line Release,″ he said. ``I’m not going to say we have the perfect program in the perfect location.″

But inspectors who work the border say that little, if anything, has been done.

``They may try to paint a rosy picture, that they check everything,″ said veteran inspector Jay Erdmann in San Diego, ``but that’s not what happens.″

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