Customs 'Rovers' Ferret Out Drug Couriers at LAX

Times Staff Writer

Something was strange about this passenger who claimed to be a chicken farmer from Nigeria.

U.S. Customs Inspector Margaret Morones searched through his luggage at Los Angeles International Airport making small talk about the chicken farm--and looking for drugs.

The passenger began sweating and waving documents to show that he really owned a farm. But when questioned closely, he seemed to know nothing about chickens.

Her suspicions aroused, the inspector sifted through every item in his bag.

The search turned up nothing. He had stuffed the heroin--half a pound of it--in his rectal cavity.

Into Los Angeles and other West Coast ports of entry flows a stream of nearly pure Southeast Asian heroin processed from the opium poppies of Burma, Thailand and Laos.

With heroin selling on Los Angeles streets for close to $1 million a pound, it is profitable to transport the drug in even very small quantities. Law enforcement officials believe that passengers on commercial aircraft are the primary means of heroin transport, a recent congressional study said.

At Los Angeles International, a special U.S. Customs "rover" team has taken aim at drug couriers in a novel way that is serving as a model for airports nationwide.

Targeting passengers on flights from certain high-risk areas, the rovers have discovered narcotics stashed in tubes of toothpaste, in the soles of tennis shoes, in the ribbed piping and false bottoms of suitcases, in the tubular frame of a wheelchair, in hollow wooden hangers, statues, coconuts--and strapped to passengers' bodies, swallowed in balloons or stuffed into body cavities.

Couriers have included women in their 70s and children with dope in their diapers, an Argentine race horse owner, an English businessman and a former South American diplomat.

$50 Billion a Year

A recent congressional study done by the Office of Technology Assistance reported that $50 billion a year in narcotics comes into this country. About 14% of the heroin in the United States comes from Southeast Asia, entering the country through couriers at West Coast ports.

The rest of the heroin, which comes from Southwest Asia and Mexico, is brought in mostly along the nation's Eastern Seaboard and southern border. As for cocaine, there is no one mode of transport clearly preferred by smugglers. Customs officials said there seems to be less cocaine smuggling at Los Angeles International than at other airports.

Since it was set up in 1984, the rover team at LAX has seized more than 200 pounds of heroin, up from 26 pounds for the three years before that, said Scotty Sang, customs official in charge of the rovers. Heroin seizures this year have risen 43%, he said.

The rover team's success has attracted the attention of officials at other airports, including San Francisco and Honolulu, where similar drug-detection programs are being modeled after the Los Angeles operation.

Careful Analysis

The LAX program rests on an exhaustive analysis of thousands of inbound international flights and their web of connector flights. Passengers aboard planes with the highest risk of drugs on board are targeted for examination by the 18-member rover team.

Sang described the rovers as "people with great observation techniques," including an uncanny instinct for singling out passengers with suspicious itineraries and phony cover stories.

Two of the rovers, Morones and Nancy McDowell, have won special commendations from Customs Service headquarters in Washington. Sang said they have probably seized more heroin than entire teams at some airports.

Both are single and in their 30s, with the energy to work six-day weeks and 15-hour days. Otherwise, they are opposites--in appearance, outside interests and personality.

Of her success, Morones said: "I think it's because I'm so damned nosy. I know everybody's business."

Watches 'Little Details'

The tall, dark-haired inspector with a disarming smile prides herself on wearing a skirt (instead of the standard uniform pants) and hanging her hair-curling iron next to the electric drill in the customs workshop where suspicious baggage is examined.

She said that her feminine instinct has clued her into "little details" about passengers that don't make sense. Her suspicions were aroused, for example, by a lawyer whose briefcase was "too neat" and a laborer whose nails were "too polished," as well as by the chicken farmer who knew nothing about chickens. All were drug couriers.

Morones recalled that it was the bedroom slippers that one lady wore that tipped her off to one of her first big busts. Except for the slippers, the passenger was a well-attired Lebanese woman, and her suitcase was full of new clothes.

"Evidently, somebody gave her the suitcase and clothes and told her to go," Marones said. They must have forgotten about her slippers though, because they were so out of place."

Morones' examination of the suitcase revealed nine pounds of heroin packed around the rim.

Breakthrough Case

Of Morones' detective work, McDowell said: "This case was an ice-breaker. It was the first of a series" of cases where heroin was found in a suitcase rim, as opposed to a false bottom.

"Margie (Morones) got a lot of important (busts) at first, and I kept wondering, 'How can this happen? She's so worried about breaking a fingernail!' " McDowell said.

McDowell has also put together an impressive record of drug seizures. Earlier this year, she uncovered nine pounds of heroin in the false bottom of a suitcase brought into the country by a New York City woman returning from a visit to Hong Kong.

The passenger said she had visited only Hong Kong, McDowell said, "but she was carrying toothpaste with Thai writing on it." Because Thailand is considered a primary source of heroin, McDowell's suspicions were aroused.

The woman had flown in from Hong Kong, stopping off for a few days in Hawaii. She had cleared customs in Hawaii and did not expect to be re-examined in Los Angeles, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven Clymer, who successfully prosecuted the woman in May.

Special Operation

Clymer said the lay-over in Hawaii "left open the possibility of a hand-off of a claim ticket or bag" containing drugs from another passenger during the second leg of the trip.

The woman was caught and prosecuted during a special monthlong rover team operation that targeted passengers who had previously cleared customs in Hawaii.

The rovers change targets from time to time because they lack the manpower to thoroughly examine all high-risk flights, especially on the busiest days--Sundays and Thursdays.

On Thursday afternoons about 3 p.m., for example, two high-risk flights from the Orient arrive within half an hour of each other, flooding the terminal with about 800 passengers.

It is a mob scene. Based on their itineraries and other intangibles, about 30 passengers are diverted for questioning and baggage checks.

The queries from customs inspectors send many passengers scrambling for their pocket dictionaries and fumbling through stuffed suitcases.

Eager to make full disclosure, a pony-tailed schoolteacher from Lebanon tries to explain that a bag of dried leaves is "Team! Team! Team!" which is later discovered to be "thyme."

Back From Ghana

A woman returning to Sacramento after visiting relatives in Ghana spends 20 minutes unpacking her trunk, suitcases and duffel bags, as well as all the bags inside her bags. African vegetable butter, black soap, dried leaves that she says will cure diabetes, wooden swords, vases, statues and reams of colorful hand-dyed cloth are splayed all over the counter, which resembles a Third World bazaar. She is cleared and told to repack--a procedure that tests the strength of her suitcase zippers.

A young woman from Pakistan unpacks several enormous suitcases. An old pair of men's shoes is whisked away to an X-ray machine.

A green-and-gold Buddha brought into the country by a passenger from Thailand is sent back to the customs workshop for closer examination. More than 20 holes are drilled in the base. The statue loses an ear. Inside, inspectors discover half a dozen miniature Buddha charms wrapped in orange cheesecloth.

"I hope this isn't bad luck," McDowell says after disturbing the religious icon.

As for the damage, she says the passenger can file a claim for reimbursement. The passenger does not seem inclined to complain.

Strange Discoveries

Even when the inspectors find no drugs--which is most of the time--they usually get an education, McDowell said.

"People have brought in bags full of dead roaches that they eat like potato chips, and fried rats and snakes," McDowell said. "There was a lady who brought in a bird concealed in her bra and a guy with a monkey in his overcoat pocket."

Passengers who seem unusually nervous, whose stories are suspect or whose possessions don't seem to fit their station in life, may be taken aside for pat-down searches. Individuals suspected of carrying drugs in body cavities are given X-rays.

During her first few months on the job, McDowell recalls becoming suspicious of a poor South American traveler carrying $1,000 in $100 bills with consecutive serial numbers. McDowell said the woman claimed to be here for a funeral, but her airline ticket predated the telegram informing her of her relative's death.

Balloons in Stomach

McDowell requested an X-ray examination, which showed that the woman's stomach contained 101 balloons of cocaine. McDowell's next job was to wait for the woman to pass the balloons and retrieve them. It took all night, she said. One balloon became lodged in her abdomen and didn't break loose for several days.

That form of smuggling is risky because body acids sometimes eat through the balloons, releasing the drug and causing instant death.

"We've had people who have arrived here dead," Sang said. "We've found as many as four to five swallowers on a single flight."

"One guy passed it (a balloon) and swallowed it again," said veteran inspector Salvator Zito. Another bolted out of the hospital after the drug showed up on the X-rays."

Some couriers may not know the risks involved, he said. Others are so desperate for money that they believe the risk is worth it.

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