Skip to content

Holding the Line

The border between the United States and Mexico represents 2,000 miles of opportunity for drug smugglers, criminals, and potential terrorists who want to enter the country illegally. For the agencies charged with protecting that border, it represents an endless challenge.

To get some idea of what they are up against, consider the following small sampling of incidents from this year: In January, U.S. authorities announced that they had uncovered dozens of tunnels—some with drugs stored inside—stretching for miles under the Mexican border. In April, 19 people were arrested at the southern border for attempting to bring methamphetamine into the United States. In May, Customs officials shot and killed a driver who sped through a checkpoint while trying to bring in illegal immigrants. In June, officials arrested a woman trying to smuggle a nine-month-old infant into the United States. She turned out to be part of a complex child-smuggling ring.

Several groups within the Department of Homeland Security are responsible for border security, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Among these groups, it is the CBP officers who are often the first to face down threats, especially at the land border.

According to the CBP, on a typical day its officers seize an average of 5,400 pounds of illegal narcotics, arrest 3,256 people for attempting to enter the U.S. between legal entry points along the border, deny entry to 868 noncitizens and 45 criminal aliens, intercept more than 210 fraudulent documents, and rescue four illegal aliens who became ill or met with danger while attempting to cross the border. That’s not in a year or a month or a week; that’s just an average day.

Border protection can be divided into two distinct parts: land crossings at ports of entry and entry via water through the nation’s seaports. The area surrounding San Diego, California, provides a clear example of both of these challenges. With both a major seaport and several land ports of entry on the Mexican border, officials in San Diego must address every conceivable type of activity from legal border crossings to terrorism prevention.

To get a firsthand look at how they are tackling the problem, I spent some time in and around San Diego, riding with the Border Patrol along the U.S./Mexican border, scanning the San Diego harbor with harbor police, and observing the CBP in action as agents inspected vehicles and individuals crossing into the United States.

By Land

The San Diego area—termed the San Diego Sector in CBP parlance—provides a snapshot of border challenges. The terrain around San Diego is the most diverse in the nation, ranging from beaches at sea level to snowy mountains at 6,000 feet. San Diego is the smallest sector in the United States, covering 7,000 square miles of border region and 66 linear miles of border, but with stations at San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, Tecate, Calexico, and Andrade, it is by far the busiest.

The San Diego sector’s land-border port at San Ysidro, which lies between San Diego and the Mexican city of Tijuana, is the most traveled port of entry in the world; last year, Customs officials there processed more than 17 million vehicles and more than 41 million people, both in vehicles and on foot.

Problems. A major concern is illegal immigrants trying to sneak into the United States. Though the Canadian border is significantly larger than the one the U.S. shares with Mexico, illegal immigration from the south is much more prevalent—constituting 92 percent of all incidents last year.

The Border Patrol, operating as part of the CBP, is charged with preventing illegal immigrants from crossing the border into the United States on foot. At the ports of entry, CBP agents are trained to spot fraudulent documents and ferret out would-be illegal aliens stowed away in secret compartments in vehicles.

Finding those stowaways not only prevents an illegal entry, it may save lives. “We often see the placement of people in specially built compartments,” says Adele Fasano, director of field operations for the San Diego sector. “They are soldered into or nailed into very dangerous locations within the automobile.”

For example, agents found a woman who was five-months pregnant stuffed into the dashboard of a minivan. In another case, two Chinese citizens were pulled, unconscious, from the engine compartment of a car. And in another incident, a small boy was found in the gas tank of a truck, immersed in gasoline. The smugglers had rigged up an alternative gas storage system, but they neglected to drain the gas from the tank where the boy was hiding.

Illegal aliens from Mexico who are apprehended in the United States west of the Mississippi are returned to Mexico at San Ysidro, under an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. Illegal immigrants or Mexican nationals released from U.S. jails are sent to Tijuana because the Mexican government does not want criminals released into rural areas or small towns. Anyone apprehended east of the Mississippi is returned through the El Paso land port.

Illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico must be processed by the U.S. government and deported to their countries of origin. Until deportation, the immigrants are supposed to be detained at a local facility, but because there are not sufficient accommodations, some are released into the population and told to return for court proceedings. Of course, they do not return. The Bush Administration has vowed to end catch and release, as the policy is called, and some localities have stopped or curtailed the practice. But it cannot be ended completely until the government constructs the necessary holding facilities.

Customs officials at the San Diego ports of entry are also charged with sniffing out drug smugglers. The drugs seized in 2005, including 5,029 pounds of cocaine, 163 pounds of heroin, and 1,214 pounds of methamphetamine, were found in secret compartments in vehicles, hidden on commercial buses, and strapped to drivers.

The numbers were up 20 percent in the first half of 2006. In one week in May 2006, CBP officers at the Calexico port seized more than 1,300 pounds of marijuana, 200 pounds of cocaine, and 50 pounds of methamphetamine for a total street value of $3.9 million.

Solutions. The myriad challenges facing border officials are met with an equal number of solutions. High-tech equipment is used along the unmanned border, but it is most prevalent at the land border ports. Low-tech savvy, along with risk management and enforcement policies, rounds out the tool kit.

Technology. The agencies fit the technology to the situation. Thus, Border Patrol agents who track illegal immigrants over rough countryside use different tools than Customs agents who clear vehicles and people through the land port.

For example, San Ysidro has 24 northbound traffic lanes, each equipped with passive radiation sensors and a license-plate recognition system. Yellow boxes placed alongside the lanes contain cameras that photograph each license plate. The system retrieves available information about each license plate from the database and prints that information for the inspector in a booth ahead of the car. The technology helps officers inspect approximately 50,000 cars a day.

While the license plate system is compiling data, other officers—called rovers—are moving among the cars, talking to drivers, and looking for suspicious behavior. K-9 teams—officers and their dogs—also wander among the vehicles. The dogs can detect both people and narcotics hidden in cars.

All of this activity is occurring in what is called the preprimary area—the area between the border and the inspection gate. Apprehension of smugglers in preprimary is not unusual. However, that area is only the first step in the inspection process.

The primary inspection area is broken into two parts. Four lanes of the port are dedicated to the Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) system. SENTRI was implemented by state and federal officials to address the unique problems along the southern border.

The program is voluntary and has now been folded into what is called the Trusted Traveler program—a nationwide system that was set up by DHS to streamline security for frequent travelers. SENTRI members go through a thorough vetting process before being accepted into the program.

The SENTRI lanes use radio frequency identification (RFID) readers to scan a decal on the front of the car. Individuals also have a proximity card that contains information about them. Their photos, along with their personal information and vehicle data, are displayed on a monitor in the inspection booth. The SENTRI database is updated every 24 hours.

To enroll in the program, users must submit their fingerprints. The names and fingerprints are run through all federal databases to check for criminal activity. Users must also present entry documents and backup documentation if they are not U.S. citizens to ensure that they are in compliance with any visa requirements.

For example, Mexican citizens must prove that they have a residence in Mexico, so they are required to submit mortgage documents or tax payments, as well as proof of fiscal solvency. The vetting process, along with the screening technology, allows inspectors to expedite the process for SENTRI participants. Inspectors process cars in the SENTRI lane at twice the rate of those in the other lanes.

SENTRI participants are not given a free pass, however. For example, in June a SENTRI participant was arrested at San Ysidro for attempting to smuggle in a six-year-old girl. The participant, who is a U.S. citizen, tried to pass the girl off as his daughter. In early 2004, smuggling attempts among those using the SENTRI lane appeared to be increasing. Since then, however, the number of incidents has sharply decreased as smugglers have been arrested and kicked out of the SENTRI program.

The registered traveler designation is valid for two years, after which it can be renewed. Currently, 70,000 people are enrolled in the program—about 15 percent of the people who cross the border. The CBP’s goal is to increase the membership to 100,000.

Once vehicles are released from the primary area, they are free to enter the country. If inspectors are suspicious that a driver might be harboring illegal immigrants or contraband, they can refer the vehicle to a secondary inspection area where CBP agents x-ray the vehicle and thoroughly search it by hand.

Away from the legal ports of entry, Border Patrol agents use both high- and low-tech tools to battle drug smuggling and illegal immigrants. Along the border, 44 of the 66 miles are protected by fencing. Where there is no primary fence, there are natural barriers such as mountains or waterways.

There are two types of fences in the San Diego sector. The primary fence, which marks the border, is 12 feet high. It is composed of landing mat material from previous wars, such as the steel plates that were laid down in jungle areas in Vietnam to allow aircraft to land. A mesh extension, put up over some of the fence, increases the height to 17 feet. Secondary fences are placed several hundred feet into the United States. The secondary barriers are made either of a stretched metal mesh or of closely placed bollards.

Border Patrol officers sit in their vehicles at strategic locations so that all parts of the border along the San Diego sector are being watched at all times. To supplement the guards, pole-mounted CCTV cameras feed video into a central station. Seismic sensors detect stomping or heavy footfalls, infrared sensors are used where sensors cannot be buried, and magnetic sensors are placed on roads frequented by smugglers to detect vehicle traffic.

Over open terrain, agents use night-vision scopes. Other parts of the arsenal include hand-held night-vision goggles and mobile sensors.

The agents also use some effective low-tech solutions. For example, the border patrol smoothes out the soil around bollards and over certain sandy areas. They use what looks like a giant hairbrush that is attached to a jeep and dragged over the sand. The smooth area makes it easy for the Border Patrol to see footprints and follow those who have crossed.

In desert areas near the border, such as in Arizona, “dragging” is the preferred method of tracking illegal aliens. According to Agent Mike Bermudez, senior patrol agent with the San Diego Sector Border Patrol, dragging is a commonsense and low-tech solution that works. “When I was stationed in the desert, I would drag a five-mile area, return to where I started, and find footprints already in the sand,” says Bermudez.

Specially trained border safety units, which operate under the federal BorStar program, patrol the southern portion of the San Diego sector border by helicopter looking for illegal immigrants who might be hiding in mountainous regions. These patrols, which operate under the CBP, can extract migrants from remote areas. These illegal aliens are often suffering from exposure.

Trends. Keeping one step ahead of the smugglers is crucial for Customs officials. They look for trends in means and methods. “As we become better at detecting types of forged documents, we have seen the trend shift from document fraud to deep concealment of individuals,” says Fasano.

The CBP also has an intelligence component to help agents spot changes in tactics. For example, smugglers have recently switched to passenger vans as the vehicle of choice for smuggling both migrants and narcotics.

With regard to drugs, methamphetamine smuggling has been on the increase for several years. Until recently, the most common drug items coming from Mexico were methamphetamine ingredients. Those ingredients would be gathered on the U.S. side of the border and cooked up in meth labs in San Diego.

Last year, law enforcement raided and shut down the labs. Now, methamphetamine ingredients are rarely seen. Instead, traffickers are making meth on the Mexican side of the border and attempting to smuggle in the finished product.

Response. Once lawbreakers are caught, the next question is what should be done. The CBP agents in the San Diego sector would like to prosecute all smugglers, but that’s not possible. “The system does not have the capacity to handle all of the prosecutions,” says Fasano. “So we go after the most egregious violators, where someone has actually been endangered or where human life has been placed in jeopardy.”

For other offenders, the responses vary. If a smuggler is a U.S. citizen, the CBP can seize the smuggler’s vehicle and prosecute him or her. Smugglers can also get hit with a fine of $5,000 for a first offense and $10,000 for each subsequent infraction. Only a few hundred of these administrative penalties have so far been levied against individuals, however, so it is difficult to determine how well the program is working.

Not surprisingly, some problems have arisen in collecting the fines. However, if the offender is working and paying taxes in the United States, the CPB can work through the Treasury Department and garnish the person’s wages if necessary.

If the offender is not a U.S. citizen, the CBP has more options. For low-level violators who are not attempting to smuggle people into the country, CBP returns the individuals to Mexico. All violations are recorded—as are names and fingerprints.

If the same violators are caught in subsequent events or dangerous smuggling, their cases are referred to the U.S. Attorney General’s office for prosecution. If the violation does not meet the minimum guidelines for prosecution, CBP arranges a hearing before an immigration judge. This hearing can result in detention or even jail time.

As part of a new program established in conjunction with the Mexican government, some offenders are returned to Mexico and tried for their smuggling crimes there. The program, called Oasis, is designed to handle the smuggling cases that do not rise to the level required for prosecution under the guidelines of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but are so egregious that some punishment is appropriate. A single case of human smuggling, for instance, might be referred to the Oasis program.

By Sea

People entering the Port of San Diego usually arrive on a cruise ship or a commercial vessel. Though some intrepid swimmers from south of the border have attempted to enter the country via the ocean, illegal immigration by water is not a serious problem in the San Diego sector.

A more serious concern, as noted recently by Admiral Thad Allen, who heads the Coast Guard, is that U.S. seaports are vulnerable to improvised explosive devices brought in on small vessels. To protect against this threat, Allen is devising new security strategies for ports that may include licensing smaller boats or excluding some vessels from certain high-risk areas in ports.

This new strategy is the latest in a series of programs designed to secure the nation’s 360 commercial seaports against the threat of terrorism. Because of the many groups involved in the operation of seaports, all security measures present challenges. For example, at the Port of San Diego, port officials, the U.S. Navy, the Harbor Police, and the Coast Guard are all responsible for different pieces of the puzzle.

The San Diego port is compact, housing various users in a small space. The port authority manages three terminals—a cruise line terminal and two marine terminals that deal primarily in break-bulk cargo and automobiles. The cruise terminal averages 200 ships a year that stay in port from a few hours to overnight. The business at the cruise terminal has expanded. Two years ago, cruise ships could only stopover in the port; now they are able to load and offload passengers. This means more tourist money for the city, but more challenges for security.

The port owns and manages the terminals and is responsible for submitting a security plan to the Coast Guard and then overseeing its implementation. In ports where terminals are owned by shipping companies, those companies would be responsible for devising and implementing security plans.

Each port in the United States is required to have a security officer under the Maritime Transportation and Safety Act of 2002 (MTSA). This officer may be responsible for the security of the port or for each individual terminal, depending on the size of the operation and pending approval from the Coast Guard.

Paul Patricio serves as the facility security officer for the San Diego terminals. While Patricio supports the whole region and works in conjunction with the port, his prime concerns are security at the terminals and the federal requirements that govern them. He is responsible for overseeing the physical security required under MTSA, which includes conducting vulnerability assessments for each terminal, developing site security plans, and installing equipment as needed, such as fences and access control systems.

Patricio is also charged with hiring and managing contract guards. The guards patrol the terminals and conduct screening for cruise ship passengers.

To protect the two shipping terminals from attack via the water, the port has the equivalent of concrete bollards—a floating fence of linked oblong balloons with steel cables running through them. There are less obvious safeguards around the cruise ships, mostly submerged fences with only a black and yellow striped rectangle sticking out of the water. They look innocuous but can destroy the propeller of any boat that tries to breach them. This type of fencing also serves to keep pollutants, such as expelled fuels, contained near the cruise ship so that they do not escape into the harbor.

While most security issues surrounding the shipping terminals have been addressed, Patricio still has a challenge in screening cruise ship passengers. Because there are no federal guidelines for cruise ship security, the port must use the cruise line’s policies for screening. The problem is that all cruise lines have different lists of forbidden items, and port security officers must screen for them even if they have nothing to do with security.

“MTSA requires that ports conduct 100 percent screening,” says Patricio. “But it doesn’t say how that screening should be conducted or what I’m looking for.”

For example, some cruise lines don’t want passengers to bring alcohol on board, so some require that security confiscate the booze and pour it out in front of the passenger. Some have a policy of confiscating it and, at the end of the cruise, giving it back to the passenger. Some don’t screen for alcohol at all.

Another challenge is funding. The funds given by the government for port security since 2001 have been critical for purchasing new equipment, but now that the equipment is installed, a problem has developed. “I don’t need any more equipment, but I need money to maintain and operate the equipment I have,” says Patricio. “I can use grant money to buy CCTV equipment but not to hire people to watch the monitors.”

For example, one of the earliest port security grants provided the funds to install a comprehensive CCTV system. However, the port now struggles to come up with the more than $1 million it takes each year to maintain and monitor that surveillance system.

Harbor police. The Harbor Police with its 155 sworn officers is the only law enforcement agency on the water. No other group has jurisdiction in harbor waters. The Harbor Police are responsible for law enforcement and public safety in all the marinas. In addition to patrolling the harbor, the police are responsible for firefighting and diving expeditions in emergency situations.

The Harbor Police have four firefighting vessels on the water, two of which are deployed around the clock. Each vessel has an engine dedicated solely to pumping water from the ocean for firefighting purposes. The boats are also equipped with a foam system to fight fuel fires.

All personnel are certified firefighters. Each officer is issued firefighting gear and a self-contained breathing apparatus. The Harbor Police serve as first responders; however, most fires are handled through various mutual-aid agreements. For example, if there is a fire at the cruise terminal, both the Harbor Police and the local fire department would respond.

The police also have a 37-person dive team. Though the team existed prior to 9-11, its duties have evolved. Before 9-11, the dive team’s activities were primarily related to body recovery and narcotics searches. Now, divers work with the Navy and the Coast Guard to mitigate any underwater hazards. For example, the entire team has been trained in underwater hazardous-device response and recognition—specifically explosive devices.

While planting an explosive device on the hull of a ship is a sophisticated form of attack, it is a tactic that has been used in other parts of the world. If the dive team discovered such a device, they would identify it, mark it, and then turn the operation over to Navy personnel for mitigation.

One of the team’s major achievements is helping to form an interoperable communications system used by several regional agencies. The need for a system was obvious. Without such a communications system, these various groups found it impossible to conduct a simulation or a drill together.

To address the problem, the Harbor Police obtained grant money for the additional equipment needed to build up a communications system that was installed by local municipalities in the 1990s. Now several groups will be able to exchange information via the regional communications system.

Some groups still aren’t part of the system, however. The Navy does not participate and the Coast Guard has not yet decided whether to join. But according to the port’s Homeland Security Program Manager John MacIntyre, it is a significant step forward. “It’s not perfect, it’s not fixed, but we’re on our way,” he says.

The first major test of the system is planned for this year. The Harbor Police along with all other port agencies and local municipalities will participate in a field exercise, the culmination of a three-year planning effort by the Coast Guard. The scenario will be a terrorist incident that takes place on a cruise ship.

Through the exercise, the Harbor Police hope to test not only their communications system but also their fire suppression and explosives-detection skills. The incident command structure and the organization of the dive team will be under scrutiny as well.

In addition to communications tools, the MTSA grant program has helped the Harbor Police buy much-needed equipment. However, the program is changing, affecting the agency in numerous ways. When the program first started, the police needed basic equipment and used the grant money to purchase it through last year. Under this year’s grant program, grant recipients must match 25 percent of the funds they are given. “This changes your focus and ambition,” says Lieutenant Don Claypool. “You have to decide what you can afford as well as what fits into your overall strategy.”

Strategies have also changed. The early grant program was intentionally focused on threats to individual ports. This helped alleviate the concern that the government would take a cookie-cutter approach to port security. However, the grant program’s funds are now predicated on meeting national or state priorities. For example, the current grant cycle will focus on methods for the detection, prevention, and mitigation of improvised explosive devices.

“The DHS now drives the issue at all other levels,” setting the priorities, says Claypool. “Grants are no longer given for issues that San Diego perceives are its biggest threats but for what fits into the national maritime strategy.”

Navy. The U.S. Navy plays a crucial role in the Port of San Diego because of its base there. More than 60 surface ships and three nuclear submarines are home ported at the naval base in San Diego.

The Navy does not take the lead in security but can perform a support function if needed. There are three U.S. Navy boats in the water at all times; they are there to protect their own assets, but in an emergency, these vessels would assist in the performance of general security functions.

The harbor is also home to a dolphin-training program. The animals are trained to find divers and alert naval security to their presence. Other port agencies are careful to tell the Navy when exercises are planned. The dolphins have interrupted training missions by pulling Harbor Police divers out of the water.

Coast Guard. Through the MTSA, the Coast Guard is charged with reviewing and approving port security plans as well as conducting inspections to ensure that those plans are being followed. In this oversight role, the Coast Guard’s biggest challenge since 9-11 has been to approve all of these plans. With that task behind them, the challenge is to ensure that everyone understands and follows the rules.

To keep everyone informed, the Coast Guard office that oversees San Diego has expanded its outreach program. Under MTSA, the Coast Guard participates in a local Maritime Security Committee; it also takes every opportunity to talk with community groups and municipal agencies about security. This entails speaking to diverse groups such as sport fishing associations, lawyers, environmentalists, and the Kiwanis Club. “A lot of our time is spent making sure we’re reaching out to those folks who don’t know what the Coast Guard does,” says Deputy Commander Roderick E. Walker.

Joint operations. All of the players have a visible presence in the San Diego harbor. On any given day, visitors can spot Harbor Police, Navy, and Coast Guard boats in the water and several agency helicopters circling overhead. The groups have a covert presence as well, one that is serving as a prototype for other ports.

The Sector Command Center-Joint (SCCJ) is housed on Coast Guard property and was funded with grants to several different agencies. SCCJ is a joint operations center for the port. It directly involves all the entities at the port except the Navy. (The Navy houses its surveillance center about a mile away but is continually briefed by SCCJ.) Other groups such as ICE and even the California National

Guard use the station to monitor their operations in the area.

The SCCJ has two purposes. First, it houses the equipment and employees from various agencies that monitor all the cameras, alarms, and sensors throughout the port. Having a representative of each group in the same command center helps increase situational awareness and decrease response time in case of an emergency.

The center also disseminates information to keep all of the agencies informed. “If there is a fire on a cruise liner, the Navy cares because of the proximity of the cruise terminal to the naval base,” says MacIntyre. “If there is a security incident on the naval base, the Coast Guard and Harbor Police need to know that. It does not mean that any group has forfeited jurisdiction, it just helps enhance everyone’s ability to respond.”

The SCCJ was also designed to save time and money by allowing agencies to coordinate missions and enforcement. “If we have a search and rescue mission down at the border, CBP can take care of that on our behalf,” says Coast Guard Sector Commander Chip Strangfeld. “That type of coordination used to be difficult but now is almost seamless because we are all working out of the same command center.”

The job of securing the borders can be frustrating and complex. But through a combination of technology, dogged attention to detail, and coordination among agencies, the government is making some progress at holding the line against border crime.

Teresa Anderson is a senior editor at Security Management.