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Controversial Leader of Drug War : Customs’ Von Raab: He Knows His Duty, Does It

Times Staff Writer

When a U.S. prosecutor refused to help the Customs Service with a crackdown on pornographic mail entering the port of New York from Scandinavia last year, William von Raab, the flamboyant, bantamweight customs commissioner, took matters into his own hands.

He found a cooperative U.S. attorney in North Carolina and had customs agents divert all Scandinavian mail to a port in that state. Although Postal Service officials put a stop to that practice several weeks later and threatened Von Raab with criminal action for slowing the mail, the commissioner vowed to renew his crusade.

“We may have lost that battle, but we’re going to try to win the war,” he said in an interview Monday.

The episode typifies the controversial way that Von Raab, called “Little Caesar” by critics, has run the Customs Service for nearly five years. A 5-foot, 2-inch lawyer with reddish-brown hair that fits his feistiness, he has transformed the agency from a routine checker of cargo and luggage into an aggressive warrior against drug smugglers and exporters of military contraband.

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In the process, Von Raab has developed a penchant for doing things his unique way--whether ordering the unprecedented seizure of drug-bearing commercial airliners and rental cars or staging a weeklong slowdown of vehicle inspections at the Mexican border to protest the slaying of a U.S. narcotics agent in Guadalajara.

Several days ago, according to sources, he had his way once again--and this time his job was on the line.

At a make-or-break meeting with his boss, Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, Von Raab was questioned about Senate testimony May 13 in which he accused Mexican law enforcement officials of massive corruption and suggested that the governor of the state of Sonora produced marijuana and opium on four ranches. The testimony provoked howls of protest from the Mexican government and forced scrambling U.S. officials to issue a series of apologies, clarifications and pacifying statements.

But sources said that Von Raab won a strong vote of confidence from Baker after giving assurances that he had referred to “allegations,” not hard evidence, about Sonora Gov. Rodolfo Felix Valdez--and that his information was based on credible sources, despite Valdez’s denial that he even owns any ranches.

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Called Willie by those who know him well, the 44-year-old Von Raab (pronounced Rob) was a partner in a Washington law firm, a vice president of New York University and a middle-level federal bureaucrat before taking the reins of the Customs Service in 1981. He has made both ardent friends and fervent enemies as he has streamlined his agency and shifted its primary mission.

‘Absolutely Dedicated’

“He is tough, unswerving and absolutely dedicated to doing everything he can to stem the tide of drugs coming into this country,” said Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), one of Von Raab’s key supporters and the organizer of the hearing at which Von Raab blasted the Mexicans.

And Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), through a spokesman, applauded Von Raab’s charges that Mexican corruption is severely hurting the war on drug trafficking. “He is the one willing to say the emperor has no clothes, and there are a lot of people who feel it was long overdue,” said the spokesman, Ira Goldman.

A top aide said that Von Raab, unlike many government managers, gets things done by constantly prodding slow-moving bureaucracies and taking unilateral action when necessary. “He hates the State Department--thinks they’re too diplomatic,” said the aide, who requested anonymity. “He wants to be direct. He writes them horrible letters.”

Van Raab put it this way: “There are too many people in the State Department who regard every issue as a knot in a finely woven tapestry, every knot of which, if it were to come undone, the whole tapestry would come undone. If you take that approach to life, that every issue is related to every other, you’ll never do anything.”

Earned Many Epithets

That is the kind of statement that has earned Von Raab such epithets as brash, capricious, imperial, intent on imposing his conservative moral views on others.

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A former top Customs Service official, who professed admiration for Von Raab (whom he described as “extremely bright and capable”) said that the commissioner’s greatest strength--decisiveness--is also a major weakness. “Sometimes he moves very quickly on issues that you might want to move deliberately on,” said the former official, who asked not to be named.

To those who encounter him on Capitol Hill, Von Raab can be combative but also “very charming, very boyish, with a little twinkle in his smile,” said John Cusack, chief of staff of the House Select Committee on Drug Abuse and Control.

Believed Losing Ground

Some in Congress contend that, despite Von Raab’s effort to shift considerable resources from commercial operations to drug interdiction, the Customs Service is losing ground. Although drug seizures are way up, they say, the amount of narcotics that gets through is soaring too.

“To patrol the entire coast from San Diego to Seattle, customs has eight boats, some of which can’t even get out of the harbor,” said an aide to Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.), chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the agency.

Cusack, contending that the Customs Service’s huge and growing air force is ineffective in combatting drug traffic, said the agency would do better to increase inspectors at airports and seaports.

Von Raab insists that his agency is gaining ground in the war against drug imports at a time when domestic production is soaring. “Local police detectives tell me that if it weren’t for customs taking the huge amounts out that we are, there would be 100 people selling coke on a particular street corner instead of 20,” he said. “This effort has saved the country.”

‘Bad Guys’ Spend More

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Stepped-up enforcement by customs and other agencies has forced “the bad guys” to spend more on avoiding detection and to take more risks, he said. “We are pushing them toward the ragged edge. They’re starting to make mistakes.”

Other critics complain that Von Raab’s emphasis on enforcement has hurt American business by forcing cutbacks in the number of agents who process the swelling volume of imports before they can enter the country.

“We don’t quarrel with interdicting drugs or trying to stop the shipment of weapons to Iran, but we would like to see the same kind of effort put into the commercial side,” said Cecelia Castellanos, president of the Los Angeles Customs & Freight Brokers Assn.

Staff Cuts Protested

Los Angeles business executives have protested loudly against staff reductions that have slowed processing of cargo at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Von Raab, dismissing charges that commercial operations are being short-changed, said that customs has spent millions installing a computer system that is cutting a huge swath through paper work normally required for imported goods. He said many of the complaints are from private customs brokers fearful that their services will no longer be necessary.

“These guys want us to employ additional customs officials to manage ineffective, inefficient past practices,” he said. That, he added, would amount to “corporate socialism.”


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