Search of Vehicles at Border Triggers Massive Congestion

Times Staff Writer

Horns blared and tempers flared for the second straight day Saturday as motorists waited two hours and longer to cross the border at San Ysidro as U.S. Customs and Immigration officers searched every car entering the United States for clues as to the whereabouts of a kidnaped U.S. drug enforcement agent.

Baffled motorists, sitting in cars with idling engines, blew their horns in frustration as they sat in long lines that would not move. The lines of cars weaved and stretched three miles into downtown Tijuana, and most drivers had no clue why the backup was so long. Although the two-hour wait was bad enough, it was an improvement from early Saturday morning when the wait was 7 1/2 hours, said Larry Adkins, acting chief inspector of Customs at San Ysidro.

After the early morning traffic jam, American border officers decided to ease the congestion by thoroughly checking only cars belonging to non-U.S. citizens, Adkins said. He said the decision was made at 9 a.m. to only do spot checks of cars carrying Americans because "the people we're looking for are not U.S. citizens," meaning the suspected kidnapers.

Mike Fleming, a Customs spokesman in Southern California, said Saturday that the heads of the Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, decided during the week to make at least a cursory check of every car entering the United States from Mexico during the Presidents' Day weekend. U.S. officials said the massive search for the missing agent is unprecedented and will affect every crossing and airport on or near the U.S-Mexico border.

Fleming said the objective is to look for clues relating to the Feb. 7 kidnaping of DEA Agent Enrique S. Camarena. Camarena, a drug agent for 11 years, was abducted at gunpoint in Guadalajara, Mexico, by suspected drug traffickers. It the first known kidnaping of a DEA agent in Mexico.

"We want to send a message to drug smugglers that the U.S. government is not going to crumble under their threats. If they want to play hardball, federal law enforcement officials will play, too," Fleming said.

U.S. officials in Southern California and Washington denied reports that the border action is designed to put pressure on the Mexicans to intensify their search for the missing Camarena.

Some motorists were aware of the search for the missing agent, but that did not lessen the frustration of sitting in a stationary vehicle for hours.

"I think it's foolishness. Why are they messing with a million people while they look for one person?" said a Colorado man who did not want to be identified.

Dennis Murphy, a Customs spokesman in Washington, said that Camarena's photo has been made available to every Customs officer on the U.S.-Mexican border. However, Fleming said that U.S. officials have no information to indicate that Camarena's abductors would try to smuggle him into the United States this weekend. And local Customs and DEA officials gave no reasons why Camarena's kidnapers would want to bring him into the United States.

"We have no specific intelligence that there might be an attempt to smuggle the agent across the border this weekend," Fleming said. "The purpose of the operation is strictly to help DEA agents develop leads. We're working with the DEA on this one like we do on numerous occasions."

A wire service report said that photographs of suspects sought in the kidnaping were also made available to American border agents. But by Saturday afternoon DEA and Customs officials in Southern California said they had not turned up any clues to Camarena's whereabouts.

Mexican Customs officials in Tijuana said they were not notified in advance of the joint DEA/Customs operation.

"Officially, we were not told anything," said Gonzalo Anell, a Mexican Customs official. "But we've heard the stories about the missing agent."

Adkins confirmed that U.S. Customs officials did not advise their Mexican counterparts of the massive vehicle search. Instead, Adkins said that Tijuana police were told that traffic jams would be a problem this weekend. Tijuana police were busy Saturday keeping order among the lines of cars that stretched as far as the eye could see into Tijuana.

The operation will be in effect throughout the holiday weekend, but nowhere on the border from Texas to California were the traffic jams as horrendous as in San Ysidro, the world's busiest port-of-entry. On an average day about 30,000 cars, carrying 98,000 people, cross the border at San Ysidro.

Twenty-two car lanes were open from 6 a.m. until midnight Saturday, allowing traffic to move at about a two-hour pace. Early Saturday morning, when the crackdown begin, Customs only had four lanes open, forcing motorists to wait 7 1/2 hours before crossing into the United States. Some people slept in their cars, and some resorted to fisticuffs as an occasional plucky motorist drove his car between lanes in a bold attempt to get in front of the others.

A Customs agent who did not wish to be identified said that on Saturday morning about 15 San Diego police, some carrying shotguns, were called in to keep order among the stranded motorists as they drove their cars to the U.S. side.

Several cars overheated and stalled Saturday, putting their owners at the mercy of those motorists kind enough to push them along in line. One man, who was calling from a pay phone in the Customs building, was overheard telling his family that another driver pushed him for three hours Saturday morning as the two inched their way to the border.

"It's insane. It's crazy. All we wanted to do is go to Mexico and pick up the wrought iron bird cage that we ordered a month ago. It's going to cost us about four hours in lost time and maybe a tank of gas before we get out of here," said Noreen Olive of Paramount.

Adkins said that he empathized with motorists as he looked out at the surrealistic arrangement of automobiles and trucks of every imaginable make, size and color.

"These people have to be very irate," Adkins said. "But every inspector says they're being very cooperative and nice once you tell them what we're doing."

Customs officers said that people who commute regularly between Tijuana and the San Diego area know what lanes to use to avoid a long wait. On Saturday, while drivers in the middle lanes waited two to three hours to cross the border, those who used the first three lanes on each side whizzed through in 45 minutes.

Although the pedestrian corridor was jammed with wall-to-wall people on Saturday, their wait was only 45 minutes, Adkins said. He put the normal wait for pedestrians entering the United States at no more than 20 minutes. Adkins said that Customs officers were instructed to conduct equally thorough searches of the bags and containers brought into the United States by pedestrians.

Motorists who used the new border crossing at Otay Mesa had to contend with a 2 1/2 hour wait, Customs officials said. The Otay Mesa crossing, loated 4 1/2 miles east of San Ysidro, was dedicated on Jan. 24 and is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Later Saturday evening U.S. officials said that the wait for motorists crossing at San Ysidro had been scaled back to an hour.

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