Drug Searches Bring Long Border Waits : Sales Lag, Business Leaders on Both Sides of San Ysidro Crossing Say

Times Staff Writer

A U.S. Customs Service crackdown on drug traffic along the U.S.-Mexico border has caused delays as long as two hours in entering the United States at San Ysidro, up to an hour at the new Otay Mesa crossing, and 90 minutes at Tecate.

The delays have prompted criticism from businessmen on both sides of the border at San Ysidro and Tijuana who are heavily dependent on the flow of shoppers and tourists across the international boundary.

But the crackdown--and the long delays--will continue indefinitely at all five California border crossings, said Allan Rappoport, customs director in San Diego.

For the foreseeable future, Rappoport said, motorists from Mexico can expect to wait at least an hour before entering the United States from Tijuana through San Ysidro, which U.S. officials call the world's busiest land border crossing. Each day, more than 93,000 people and 27,000 vehicles enter the United States there, officials say.

"What's going on now is an intensified enforcement effort that we plan to continue indefinitely," said Rappoport, whose district includes the 200-mile California-Mexico border.

The crackdown, Rappoport said, includes increased inspection of vehicles and involves the reassignment of some inspectors who formerly manned the inspection booths at San Ysidro.

At noon Monday, only seven of the 24 lanes entering the United States at San Ysidro were open, a number that officials said was unusually low. Waits as long as two hours were reported for vehicles entering the United States.

The slowdown, which has been going on for several weeks, has raised the ire of business interests on both sides of the border who still remember the monumental backups of as long as seven hours during the so-called "Operation Camarena" in February and March of 1985.

That operation, which stretched the length of the border, was initially presented as a drug-related crackdown. But U.S. officials later acknowledged that it was primarily designed to pressure Mexican authorities to step up their investigation into the slaying of Enrique Camarena, an undercover U.S. drug agent killed in Mexico last year.

At the time, business leaders said that the delays severely hurt business along the border, an economically depressed area where shop signs in English and Spanish attest to the importance of international commerce. On Monday, business leaders in Tijuana and San Diego said they had already seen a drop in sales because the long lines had deterred tourists and shoppers from venturing across the border.

"It's like the Camarena thing again," said Alberto Garcia, president of the International Chamber of Commerce, a San Ysidro-based organization that represents more than 100 businesses on both sides of the border. "We're being hurt bad by this. Who wants to wait two hours to cross the border?"

In Mexico, there is a widespread belief that the move is designed to force Mexican officials to take steps against drug traffickers who are bringing narcotics into the United States. U.S. officials say that Mexico is an important source of marijuana and heroin being consumed in the United States, and that Mexico is increasingly used as a transit site for South American cocaine destined for U.S. markets.

"They're doing it deliberately, as a sort of sabotage," charged Alfredo Ramirez Lewall, a spokesman for the Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau, a government-funded promotion agency. "This is a very poor policy. . . . All it does is hurt people on both sides of the border."

Rappoport denied that there was any motivation other than to crack down on the amount of drugs coming into the United States.

"There's no game playing or anything of that sort," said Rappoport. "We're not going to open up every trunk, like during (Operation) Camarena."

Unlike the borderwide slowdown last year, it appears that the current move is limited to the five border crossings in California. Charles Conroy, a Houston-based Customs spokesman for the district that includes the other border states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, said he knew of no crackdown at border crossings there.

Rappoport said the crackdown stemmed from increased attention to the problem of drug abuse and the amounts of drugs being smuggled from Mexico, citing a January hearing in San Diego by the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. During the hearing, it was revealed that in the first two months of fiscal 1986 customs officials in San Diego seized 131 pounds of cocaine--more than the 104 pounds seized during the entire previous fiscal year.

"That's enough dope to provide every high school age kid in San Diego and Imperial counties with five 'highs,' " Rappoport said.

Border business representatives said they weren't disputing the seriousness of the drug problem. But they insisted that Customs must place a greater priority on manning booths at the border crossings and maintaining a smooth flow of legal traffic.

"No one is saying they shouldn't be trying to stop drugs coming in," Garcia said. "But they have to find a better way of doing it."

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