Wednesday, January 30, 2008

It's the checkpoints, stupid: A border wall won't stop smuggling at legal crossings

If your goal is to stop drug smugglers, a border wall won't help and here's why: Most smuggling traffic in narcotics happens by air, by sea, and through the regular checkpoints or "plazas" where a vast number of legitimate travelers cross back and forth every day. (For that matter, half of so-called "illegal immigrants" didn't enter the country illegally; instead they overstayed a visa. Such folks don't swim the river, they enter through checkpoints and airports, and officials rightly wave them on through.)

The debate over immigration and border enforcement becomes tiresome to me because so many false assumptions get wrapped into it. A border wall can't solve anything because the checkpoints, not the empty spaces in between, are where most cross-border smuggling occurs; a recent story from ABC News ("Fake Fed-Ex trucks; when the drugs absolutely have to get there," Jan. 18) gives a good example how that routinely happens:
Savvy criminals are using some of the country's most credible logos, including FedEx, Wal-Mart, DirecTV and the U.S. Border Patrol, to create fake trucks to smuggle drugs, money and illegal aliens across the border, according to a report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Termed "cloned" vehicles, the report also warns that terrorists could use the same fake trucks to gain access to secure areas with hidden weapons.

The report says criminals have been able to easily obtain the necessary vinyl logo markings and signs for $6,000 or less. Authorities say "cosmetically cloned commercial vehicles are not illegal."

In August 2006, the Texas Department of Public Safety, on a routine traffic stop, found 3,058 pounds of marijuana and 204 kilograms of cocaine in a "cloned" Wal-Mart semi-trailer, driven by a man wearing a Wal-Mart uniform.

In another case, a truck painted with DirecTV and other markings was pulled over in a routine traffic stop in Mississippi and discovered to be carrying 786 pounds of cocaine.
This is old news, exposing a frequently used tactic rather than reporting on a new development. (Even more common would be bribing/threatening the driver of a legitimate commercial vehicle.) Less than 1% of northbound shipping traffic at the Mexican border is ever inspected (less headed south), and even that results in long lines daily at every border entry point. Most of these folks are legitimate travelers or transporting legal goods in a trade relationship that benefits both countries. According to George Friedman at Stratfor:
In 2006, the United States imported $198 billion in goods from Mexico and exported $134 billion to Mexico. This makes Mexico the third-largest trading partner of the United States and also makes it one of the more balanced major trade relationships the United States has. Loss of Mexican markets would hurt the U.S. economy substantially.
That's an immense amount of legitimate trade crossing back and forth - most of it by highway through the main plazas or checkpoints - that effectively masks crafty smuggling operations, especially when high profit margins allow smugglers to effectively absorb any losses.

The fact is, too many legitimate Fed-Ex trucks need to cross the border, and WalMart trucks, and DirecTV trucks, and anything else you can think of, to search every last one of them. (And drug dogs don't work well in a crowded checkpoint environment.) We've established vast maquiladora industries that are directly dependent on that kind of "low-friction" border crossing, to use Friedman's phrase. Add to that, the amount of legitimate traffic is increasing thanks to the Pacific Rim sending more and more US-bound goods through Mexican ports.

It's hard to overstate the importance of the border economy to Texas, even for Texans who grow old and die having never visited there. Not just now but historically Texas' robust economic relationship with Mexico - mostly legal, but also illicit - contributes greatly to buoying the state from facing the full brunt of national economic downturns.

Two thirds of the US border with Mexico is in Texas. If "securing the border" results in a reduction or slowing of legitimate north-south trade, Texas' economy will endure a disproportionate share of the negative impact. I'm a lot more worried about that than I am the nationality of the guys building the condos next door.

Walls and patrols in the desert ignore the paths destined for most smuggling across the border, in both directions: To steal a line from James Carville, "It's the checkpoints, stupid." Success or failure at reducing both drug smuggling and illegal immigration depends mostly on how we handle the traffic flow at legal border crossings - much of the rest is public relations.

9 comments:

el_longhorn said...

People just don't understand this, Grits! It ain't the guy swimming the river with a kilo on his back, it is the 18 wheeler with 100 kilos hidden in its payload!

The best smuggler is the person who does not KNOW they are a smuggler. Put 20 kilos of cocaine (about $250,000 worth) into a tractor trailer amidst legit goods, the driver comes to pick it up and crosses the border. He gets stopped at customs, they ask him what he is carrying, he says "auto parts" and shows them his bill of lading. The guy is not nervous, so the customs agent suspects nothing. If they weigh the truck to check it against the bill of lading, 20 kilos is only about 50 pounds, so they will never be able to detect such a small weight discrepancy. If they X-ray, they might pick it up, but it is just too expensive and time consuming to x-ray every single one of the millions of trucks crossing the border.

Juries along the border are refusing to convict guys like the one above because the tell the jury, "I am just the driver, I didn't know what was in the truck! I go to point A, hook up the trailer, and drive it to point B." The jury's have been finding these guys innocent, and the US Atty's are getting pickier about who they prosecute.

snarly old fart said...

You never mentioned the greatest weakness of our borders: the 'diplomatic pouch'. The container and its courier -- or vehicle and its driver -- are immune from searches, immune from arrests.

Lest anyone think this must be small potatoes only, consider that an official in an embassy or consulate can have their furniture shipped via 'pouch' -- tons of stuff immune from any inspection.

rage said...

We'll never stop murders from happening. Let's just not prosecute murderers anymore.

It's human nature, stupid!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

What are you talking about, rage? You've gone off the deep end again.

dannoynted1 said...

Well Is it ok to shoot funeral Gate Whittington on 2/11?

Not in our neck of the woods.....but I have a feeling the United States Ambassador to Switzerland was the pivot in that charade.

Can you imagine if she had been shot?

Patricia/Bo/John Hubert cover ups.

Were they "touched"?

Ask Fugate, he knows all about it.

rage said...

It makes more sense than you want to admit Grits. Your reason for not taking steps to enforce the law is that enforcement is not possible. The drug war (and only for pot, in my opinion) is the only time I can think of where that should be a consideration.

We have laws for a reason. There will always be people who violate them. That should almost never be the reason for not enforcing the law.

But it's always good to quote Ann in order to call those who disagree with you stupid. She was right, you;re just trying to discredit anyone who thinks we should enforce the existing laws.

As for going off the deep end, you should check the post following yours, not the pne preceding it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Where did I say not to enforce the law, rage? You must be reading a different post, or a different blog. You're arguing against a straw man of your own creation, not anything I've said.

rage said...

Where did I say not to enforce the law, rage?

You're for amnesty, which is not enforcing the laws already in place. Your open-door policies would make it easier for smugglers, generally.

What you want appears to be only increased security at the legal checkpoints, which means more will go off-road or use smaller mules. With a wall and increased patrols, the only way to get across will be at the legal checkpoints, where we can increase efforts and weed out even more drug traffic. As even your blog has pointed out, there is an increased turf war over routes into the US, showing that maybe it's working.

I agree with the majority of your opinions. I think your views on the prison system and TYC are right on. I just think you have a personal bias in this area that's not supported by the numbers, as are your other opinions. You attempt to prop up your assertions with a patchwork of criticism of individual efforts to stop both illegal immigration and drug trafficking. Any one can look like a waste of time on its own, but if you put them all together you have the beginnings of a more effective border security package.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"You're for amnesty, which is not enforcing the laws already in place."

We don't enforce them now. I'm for changing the law, not law breaking. What you all "amnesty" is just a statute limitations, which we have for every non-violent crime on the books. This isn't even a criminal offense. Why should it be any different?

"Your open-door policies would make it easier for smugglers, generally."

Preposterous! The smugglers do better when we make millions of immigrants "illegal," because it's easier for them to hide. I want to separate wheat from chaff and target resources on the real threat, preferably without mucking up the economy.

And rage, you're the one on this topic who prefers to ignore "the numbers" and just support any enforcement action whether it does any good or not. The wall is a classic case - there's no rational way to believe that will "solve" anything, even partially. It's just for show. Meanwhile, I'm not an illegal immigrant, but you even support a new passport requirement that only affects citizens, not Mexicans! Screwing with me longer at the checkpoint when I go to the border for Christmas shopping doesn't really help the problem.

Police corruption is the big elephant in the room. Nothing you do on the border will help until that's reined in, but the approach so far has been to throw good money after bad and purchase more toys, while folks with your mindset cheer at every misstep.

As for the polling, the public is all over the map though nativism certainly predominates. OTOH, there was a time when the majority would have told pollsters they opposed desegregation in Texas. A majority believed Saddam Hussein participated in 9/11 before we invaded. Frequently the public is flat out wrong, as the majority is on this issue, at the moment.

As with the Iraq War, though, and segregation, when they learn more opinions change. IMO that's the case here. best,