Of drug trafficking and trucking

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Truck traffic through Laredo has tripled since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force 16 years ago. If customs inspectors examined every truck, it would cripple free trade. Instead, one out of every five trucks is unloaded and inspected. So drug traffickers play the numbers game.” –from a National Public Radio story by John Burnett

It’s a major side effect of more cross-border trade that no one wants to talk about: the increased movement of illegal narcotics via commercial trucks.

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According to a well-written story this week written by National Public Radio’s John Burnett, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents seized 96 tons of marijuana from trucks at southwest ports of entry in the U.S. this year; more than twice as much as in 2006.

On top of that, DHS officials say tougher enforcement in the lonesome stretches between towns on the U.S.-Mexican border is funneling more contraband through the bigger crossings points, places such as: Laredo, TX; Otay Mesa, CA, and Nogales, AZ.

[Here’s a report on drug smuggling at the U.S.-Mexican border filed five months ago by a local TV station. Note that while these busts deal with individuals, one of them used a large medium-duty chassis to try and smuggle illegal narcotics – hiding them in the truck’s oversize fuel tank.]

It makes a lot of sense to use commercial trucks as cover for drug shipments because, let’s face it, cross-border freight shipments are booming due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) put in place 16 years ago, to the point where over 4.7 million commercial trucks crossed into the U.S. from Mexico this year alone.

And, as NPR’s Burnett noted in his story, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents can’t stop and inspect every single truck or trade would grind to a halt. So CBP uses technology and other tactics to try and weed out the legitimate freight haulers from the drug smugglers.

[Here’s an overview of the CBP’s automated commercial environment or “ACE,” which is designed specifically to speed up cross-border commercial traffic.]

That’s the conundrum freer trade has created, as the need for speed at the border to keep freight flowing may very well be playing into the hands of drug traffickers.

This isn’t to say the CBP – much less law-abiding truckers and shippers – are doing nothing about this problem.

In fact, CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin (below, left) addressed this very topic in remarks to the Western Cargo Conference held in San Diego back in October, noting that his agency is embracing a new “3R” strategy to combat this and other security challenges: short for “refocus, rethink, and reassess.”

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“One of my top priorities is refocusing CBP on the crucial role the flow of trade plays in maintaining our global competitiveness,” he explained. “We import $2 trillion worth of goods and export $1.8 trillion. Trade is critical to our economy and to our ability to compete in the global market place. And our economic security plays an enormous role in our national security. But whereas we once talked about trying to find a balance between trade and security, I submit that doing so does justice to neither.”

Bersin believes that security and the facilitation of trade are two sides of the same coin; each reinforcing the other.

“We can secure and expedite legitimate trade and travel through risk segmentation, with our ‘Trusted Shipper and Traveler’ programs separating the goods and people we know the most about from the rest of the traffic and allow us to focus our efforts on those most likely to cause harm,” he said. “Segmenting traffic is essential for us to be able to effectively target potential threats within the volume of trade we deal with today.”

Of course, that “segmentation” effort is being strained by the volume of freight at the border, too. So that’s where Bersin’s second “R” comes in: rethinking CBP’s traditional approach to border management, which has been to “hold the line,” to intercept threats only as they attempt to cross.

“We should be securing the movement of commerce from beginning to end, from factory floor in one country through whatever mode of transit is used—ship, rail, truck, air—across the border to its ultimate destination, whether it’s a manufacturer or company,” Bersin explained. “What I’m talking about is continental security—securing the flow of people and products into, out of, and within the North American continent.”

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Part of rethinking the border, then, involves the third “R” -- reassessing the way the U.S. processes trade, he stressed.

“Customs was the first government agency established in the 1700s when our founding fathers were forming our country. That’s the good news,” Bersin said. “The bad news is that we’ve been at it for 200 years. We need to rethink some of our practices.”

That “reassessment” strategy includes:

Risk-based account management—to raise compliance by focusing on areas of risk, rather than volume, and expediting trade with our trusted partners by improved targeting and risk segmentation;

Simplified entry and financial processes—that would expedite legitimate trade, provide for earlier release decisions, and streamline the submission of information and payments;

Centers of expertise and excellence—a “virtual” concentration of CBP personnel who would leverage expertise and provide uniform guidance; and

Improving the automated commercial environment or “ACE"—finding ways to leverage the investment we’ve made in ACE, to ensure it fully supports our efforts to “management by account.”

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Bersin also added a fourth “R” to his list: “redefining” the role of customs brokers, so they can step up and help CBP improve the safety and security of commerce coming into the U.S.

“Customs brokers are some of our most important partners,” he said. “We value you. We need your help to do our job, and we want your advice and counsel. You are our boots on the ground. We can’t do our job without you, and I am committed to rebuilding our bonds of trust with you.”

Brokers, Bersin added, are critical to making the management by account work, especially for small and medium size businesses.

“No longer can we see the border as a fixed dividing line,” he stressed. “Although policing those boundaries will remain a key element of any border management approach, we should take a more holistic view of border management—one that includes securing and expediting the flow of lawful trade and travel. Help us find that low hanging fruit—and help us fix it—so we can move on to the bigger issues.”

And it’s through this type of cooperative effort between business and government that could eventually (we hope) choke off the ability of drug traffickers to smuggle illegal narcotics through cross-border freight channels. That’s the hope; the challenge, of course, is to make that hope become reality.

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