Checkpoint: Agents Wage Ceaseless War on Smugglers

Times Staff Writer

An eerie mist rolled up from the nearby Pacific Ocean, shrouding the white lights that illuminated the “Stop U.S. Officers” sign.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Art Lamberson squinted at the approaching headlights as he waved through countless Honda Civics, Cadillacs and Winnebagos making the Sunday night northbound trek along Interstate 5 .

Lamberson concentrated his glance three or four cars back, his eyes shifting from lane to lane, car to car, all the while waving his arms at the traffic.

“Go ahead. Uh, huh, that’s it,” Lamberson said to no one in particular. “Come on. There you go.”

Lamberson’s brow furrowed as he suddenly focused on a weathered brown Chevrolet Impala approaching the four-lane San Clemente checkpoint. His right hand jutted into the air, its palm facing the Impala.

The driver rolled to a stop and cranked down his window. Lamberson bent down to get a closer look and counted eight people in the car: three sitting rigidly in the front seat and five motionless figures beneath a blanket in the back seat.

It’s a cat-and-mouse game played every day along a northbound stretch of the San Diego Freeway. The illegal aliens and their smugglers are pitted against the Border Patrol. The aliens hide, and the Border Patrol agents go and seek.


The San Clemente checkpoint is the busiest in the nation because of its location on the well-traveled northbound freeway, just south of San Onofre. Although it is in San Diego County, it’s called the San Clemente checkpoint because “that’s where our mailbox is,” said Charlie Geer, agent-in-charge at the station.

The main function of the 70-agent operation is to arrest illegal aliens who have managed to cross the U.S.-Mexico border undetected and are heading for Orange and Los Angeles counties, or beyond. The Border Patrol is under the direction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which last week released 1986-87 statistics for the 25 checkpoints in the country that operate north of the 1,900-mile southern border.

The INS reported that fewer illegal aliens were arrested this year, attributing the decrease to the Immigration Reform and Control Act that became effective in May, allowing some illegals to seek amnesty.

Nothing Has Changed

But the new statistics have not changed life at the 15-year-old San Clemente checkpoint. The agents know that illegal aliens are still getting by. It makes the contest all the more challenging.

The agents--clad in forest green uniforms and wide-brimmed Mountie-like hats--stand between the lanes of traffic, waving most of the cars through. But they have the authority to stop any vehicle they suspect may be transporting illegal immigrants, to ask for identification and to search the vehicle.

“A lot of people think these agents pull over people at random,” said Lamberson, a 14-year Border Patrol veteran. But every agent, whether rookie or veteran, has his or her own strategies for detecting suspicious people and vehicles.

The agents quickly scan the vehicles and their occupants, looking for that out-of-place driver with shifty eyes, white knuckles or a nervous twitch.

‘Just Part of the Road’

“The agents are experts at recognizing the psychological and physiological signs of people in distress,” said agent-in-charge Geer. “There (might be) two or three people in the car, and none of them look at you. The people just don’t look right. You may find a new luxury car with a scruffy looking guy in a T-shirt and blue jeans. Or you might find a nicely dressed guy driving a junk . . . . It’s a sixth sense--the guy just doesn’t seem right.”

It’s often easy to spot someone suspicious because “to the majority of people we’re just part of the road,” said agent Michael Wall, who has worked the checkpoint for 13 1/2 years. Unless the smuggler is a professional, something unnatural in his behavior will usually tip off an agent, especially when the agent starts questioning the suspect.

“Some of these guys must think we have some kind of intelligence. If you ask them, ‘Where are you going?’ and they say, ‘Well, San Clemente somewhere,’ ” Wall said, shaking his head. “You know something’s wrong.”

Because they mainly handle illegal immigrants from Mexico, Border Patrol agents are required to speak fluent Spanish. The language classes are part of their training at a 17-week academy, where they also receive intensive instruction in immigration law.

Develop 6th Sense

Although they receive some academic training on how to detect smugglers and illegal immigrants, most of their expertise comes from experience out on the checkpoint.

“In time, the agent, with the experience, will develop a sixth sense, as most people in law enforcement do,” supervisory agent Bill Beaumet said.

During the busy times, particularly on Sunday nights, the people in traffic can be helpful, too.

John Bates, a Border Patrol agent for two years, said: “The traffic really gets into it sometimes. One guy stopped and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a blue van bailing,’ ” or pulling over so the passengers can jump out and run. “And then the next guy said, ‘You’ve got a yellow van bailing,’ and I told him, ‘No, it’s a blue van.’ But he said, ‘No, the blue one already bailed, this one’s yellow.’ ”

But the danger of the game is always present, as the agents can be dealing with hard-core criminals, most of whom carry weapons. In fact, Beaumet has a slight limp from being shot several times in the leg by a smuggler.

“There are a lot of violent people,” Geer said. “You know, whether the smugglers are carrying people, parrots or dope they don’t want to get ripped off.”

The driver maneuvered the sagging brown Impala to the east side of the freeway for secondary inspection. The two passengers in the front seat stared stoically, averting their eyes only when the light shined directly on them. They did not speak.

Turning their flashlights to the back seat, the agents could only see the heads of five men and women, who were crouched beneath a tattered plaid car blanket. The beads of perspiration on their foreheads shimmered on each of them as they squinted when the light passed over them. The agents directed them to sit up and put their hands on their heads.

One agent opened the car door for the driver to step out. Aqui (here) ,” the agent said, tapping the roof of the Impala with his flashlight. The driver placed his hands on top of the car while the agent searched him for weapons and handcuffed him.

The women in the car--with their hands still on their heads--watched with wide, soulful eyes as another agent searched the two male passengers.

One of the men only reluctantly gave into the search. He stood stiffly as the agent patted him down, searching through his worn leather jacket, two or three shirts and faded denim jeans with holes in the knees.

The passengers’ eyes followed the Border Patrol agent as he took the keys out of the ignition so he could open the trunk.

The stakes are high in this game. If caught, the illegal alien is taken back to the border and deported, thwarting his plans of working in the United States. The smuggler faces potential felony charges with a penalty of up to $10,000 and/or five years in prison for every alien smuggled.

The smugglers make their biggest run on the checkpoint on Sunday nights when the traffic is heaviest with northbound travelers returning from the weekend in San Diego or Baja California.

When traffic begins to back up, and it gets to be a three- or four-minute wait, the Border Patrol, as a matter of policy, shuts down the checkpoint.

Under Surveillance

The agents know they are under surveillance by smugglers, who often work in teams. One smuggler will keep watch and, when the checkpoint closes, notify another smuggler waiting a few miles south with a load of illegal aliens.

“The minute we get off the road the CBs (citizen-band radios) and the telephones come alive,” Geer said. The informants might hide in the brush along the side of the freeway or they might pretend to have a broken-down truck at the nearby weigh station.

Although numerous illegal immigrants drive through when the checkpoint is not operating, as soon as the agents set it back up, many leave their cars on the side of the road and try to hide in the hills of Camp Pendleton to the east or on the beach to the west.

“It’s not unusual on Monday mornings to see as many as 15 abandoned vehicles on the side of the freeway from Sunday night bailouts,” Bates said.

Aside from closing down because of traffic, the checkpoint is often forced to shut down because of rain or a shortage in manpower. And the smugglers are standing by around-the-clock, prepared to swarm the checkpoint in the event it is forced to shut down.

Few Places to Hide

Still, smugglers and illegal aliens prefer to work at night, believing they have a better chance of getting through hidden beneath the dashboard or on the floor of the car.

“There aren’t really that many places in a vehicle you can hide an alien,” Beaumet said.

But smugglers will build compartments in trucks and vans to accommodate illegal aliens. Some are relatively comfortable and equipped with fans, but the majority of smugglers try to cram as many as they can into a small space.

Beaumet said the agents recently found about 15 illegal aliens in a 1 1/2-foot-wide plywood compartment in the back of a tractor-trailer rig. Another smuggler tried to sneak 187 illegal aliens through, again in a semi. Operators at the adjacent truck weigh station determined the rig had faulty breaks, but alerted the Border Patrol when they saw the truck “literally leaking sweat and urine,” Geer said. The air was so stifled in the truck, agents had to revive the first 10 illegal aliens they removed.

“Smugglers treat people like animals” agent Karl Hofman said. “They’ll put babies in a 150-degree trunk, but that’s just the half of it, the tip of the iceberg. When they go to the load houses (where newly arrived illegals are held), they’re enslaved until they pay. If the money doesn’t show up, guess who’s getting beat up or raped?

“Now that’s reading between the lines--what happens to these people. They (smugglers) are in it for the money, and I think that bothers a lot of Border Patrol agents. That’s the human side of it.”

Go to Great Lengths

The agents say smugglers will go to great lengths to get as many illegal aliens through the checkpoint as they can. Some will make replicas of produce company or furniture store trucks.

Agents not only pull over the suspicious beat-up vans and older cars without license plates. Many an alien has been hidden in the trunk of a Mercedes-Benz. A few years ago, one smuggler attempted to sneak nine illegal aliens through in a limousine--dressing them in tuxedos.

Smugglers will also try to sneak their cargoes through using rental cars, taxis and even hearses. “Not necessarily in a casket, but in a hearse, sure,” Beaumet said.

“They’re crafty,” Geer said. “They will do anything they can to get their stuff through.”

The agent shuffled with the driver’s keys, trying to find the one that opened the brown Impala’s trunk. He inserted one key, turning it to the left and then to the right. The trunk wouldn’t open. He tried another key.

When he turned the key to the right, the trunk popped up. The agent’s eyebrows raised when saw the contents of the trunk. A man and a woman lie side-by-side in a fetal position. They squinted up at the bright lights.

The woman climbed out of the trunk, short of breath. She wobbled at first, steadying herself against the side of the car. Her black hair was tied back, revealing a flushed round face.

When the man climbed out, he raised his arms above his head in familiar acquiescence, allowing the agent to pat search him. He pursed his lips and glared.

“They (illegal aliens) can spot us as well as we can spot them,” said Robert Lackie, an agent of 10 years. “We can smell each other out.”