Tourists Steam as Agents Scour Liner for Drugs

Times Staff Writer

While hundreds of fuming passengers waited for hours Wednesday in San Pedro, U.S. Customs agents searched the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth 2 from stem to stern in an aggressive new policy aimed at Colombia, where the ship had docked 10 days ago.

Five trained dogs ran through the crew's quarters on the 68,000-ton ship. In the terminal, they sniffed the mountains of luggage the 1,265 disembarking passengers were bringing into the United States. More than 70 Customs inspectors painstakingly examined every suitcase, handbag and camera case.

The haul?

Slightly more than one gram of marijuana, two switch-blade knives, 15 "agricultural objects" including apples and oranges, several pornographic magazines, a few undeclared bottles of liquor and a silver creamer and shower cap that had been filched from the ship, Customs officials said.

Operation Defended

Despite the meager results, officials defended the massive search as necessary to make the point that the drug situation in Colombia is out of control and that people, planes and vessels coming from that country can expect a rigorous search on reaching the United States.

"This effort is to secure our own border," said Customs spokesman Dennis Murphy, "and it does have the added effect of making a statement as well."

The waiting passengers, many of them retired, a few in wheelchairs and some on a 106-day round-the-world cruise, were not shy about making their own statements.

Bettye Ales of San Jose spoke for many of those with planes to catch.

"The whole thing is ridiculous," she declared. "I tell you, we have some dirty clothes and when (the inspector) gets a whiff, he'll hurry up."

Her friend Medrienne Plette was biting her nails while watching the inspector rummage through the underthings of a woman ahead of her. "I don't like people going through my clothes," she said, adding that the process made her feel "violated."

Her husband Al asserted that there was "no way" that Customs would find anything among the passengers.

Sullivan Gallo, a dentist from Long Island, strode back and forth in the long rows of luggage, frantically looking for his, while checking his watch. He, too, said the operation was pointless.

Don't Look the Part

"Most of these people are retirees and middle-aged couples. Do they look like drug dealers?" he demanded.

"I can tell you," added his wife Nina, "it was a very unhappy ship."

But Bill Billado, a retired Army colonel living in Oceanside, said the policy was "absolutely necessary in view of the threat that Colombia represents to law enforcement." His wife, Maryjon, concurred, saying she is "tired of being kicked around by countries that want our support."

QE2 Capt. Alan C. Bennell, who commands a crew of 1,100, said he spent much of the day apologizing to disembarking passengers. "If I were a passenger, I'd be a bit pissed off," he said.

He said he will recommend that Cunard officials consider dropping Colombian ports from cruise itineraries as long as the new policy is in effect.

The search, which took from 8:40 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., was the most visible episode in the Reagan Administration's policy to teach Colombia to get tough on drugs or face embarrassment and economic hardship. Officials acknowledged that they had no intelligence tips about any contraband on board.

Impact of Policy

The policy, announced Jan. 4 by Commissioner William von Raab, subjects any plane or ship stopping in Colombia on the way to the United States to intensive searches. The QE2 docked in Cartagena, Colombia, on Jan. 18.

Von Raab acted after a Colombian judge released reputed cocaine baron Jorge Luis Ochoa on Dec. 31 before extradition proceedings could be completed. Ochoa had served less than half of a 20-month sentence for illegally importing fighting bulls. In a 1984 federal indictment returned in Florida, he is alleged to be second-in-command of the Medellin cocaine cartel, which federal officials say is responsible for importing 80% of the cocaine coming into the United States.

Los Angeles Customs spokesman Michael Fleming cited the Monday assassination of Colombia Atty. Gen. Carlos Mauro Hoyos, for which a group of Colombian traffickers calling themselves "the extraditables" claimed responsibility. He said the killing only reinforced official determination to continue the policy, despite criticism from Colombian officials that it is hurting trade in perishable items, such as flowers and seafood.

The United States accounted for 43% of Colombia's legal exports in 1985.

With Valentine's Day coming up, imports of cut flowers--now running a day behind schedule because of the search policy--are expected to triple during the next two weeks, Murphy said. Customs has promised Colombian officials to put on extra inspectors, he added, but will maintain its time-consuming policy of opening every box of flowers entering the country from Colombia.

Airport Discovery

Since the policy began, officials have subjected more than 100 planes and several dozen ships to the searches. On Jan. 22, officials discovered nine pounds of cocaine aboard a Colombian airplane at Los Angeles International Airport.

Murphy said the policy will continue until Colombia makes a serious effort to stem the flow of cocaine. A similar effort in 1984 lasted several weeks, but the spokesman said the United States backed off when Colombia agreed to institute steps to screen cargoes leaving for this country.

He said that sweeping reforms intended to break the cocaine cartel's influence, announced this week by Colombian authorities, will be considered carefully by U.S. officials "in our decision as to how hard we enforce our laws at the border."

Nonetheless, at the port Wednesday, even some of the Customs people expressed sympathy at the plight of the passengers.

"I would be angry myself," said Scotty Sing, who was in charge of the elite Contraband Enforcement Team. But, he said, "They were told (about the policy). They didn't have to go into Colombia."

Fleming, the Customs spokesman, advised complaining passengers: "You know what they ought to do? They ought to send their complaints to the Colombian Embassy."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World