Border Patrol’s Drug War Role Is Questioned


Agents of the U.S. Border Patrol, longstanding gatekeepers against illegal immigration, increasingly are taking a role in the effort to staunch the flow of illicit drugs through the nation’s frontiers, particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border.

From California to Texas, green-uniformed border guards are seizing more cocaine, marijuana and other controlled substances than ever before, a fact that officials say is traceable to the rising quantities of drugs entering the United States from Mexico via the almost 2,000-mile international boundary line.

The patrol’s widening anti-drug presence--most agents have been given the legal authority in recent years to make drug arrests--has sparked a debate about whether narcotics interdiction is an appropriate mission for an agency principally charged with enforcing immigration law.

For example, on Friday a U.S. District Court judge in San Diego rejected as unconstitutional a proposal by federal prosecutors to expand the Border Patrol’s legal charter to include illicit drug checks at the freeway checkpoints on Interstate 5 and Interstate 15 running north from San Diego.

From its birth, however, the Border Patrol has taken a contraband-fighting role--starting with its Prohibition-era duties in deterring liquor traffickers. The agency, created by Congress in 1924 with the appointment of 450 “former mounted guards, policemen, sheriffs, (and) gunslingers of various types,” according to an official history, now finds itself on the front lines of the nation’s high-profile war on drugs.


Seizure statistics reflect the trend. During the most recent fiscal year, border agents recorded more than 5,000 drug seizures, netting $1.2 billion worth of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and other prohibited substances. In fiscal 1982, the Border Patrol made fewer than 500 seizures nationwide, confiscating slightly more than $5 million worth of drugs.

The burgeoning anti-drug profile of an agency that annually records almost 1 million or more immigration-related arrests--making it by far the nation’s most prolific arresting body--has generated rising concern among immigrant advocates and others who worry that officers trained in a host of exhaustively complex immigration matters are ill-equipped for the added task of narcotics law enforcement.

An independent study released in March by the RAND Corp. and the Urban Institute, two public-policy research bodies, found that “competing new missions” for U.S. immigration authorities--including additional drug enforcement--resulted in a reduction in manpower directed at implementing aspects of the sweeping 1986 immigration law reforms.

“You’re sort of boot-strapping this agency into becoming a major player in drug interdiction when they don’t have the skills,” said Charles Wheeler, director of the National Immigration Law Center, a Los Angeles-based immigrant rights group. “I have no problem with responding to drug interdiction in a major way, but not taking the Border Patrol and adding this to the 400 roles that it already has.”

U.S. authorities disagree, contending that the nation’s 3,800 border guards--most of whom are posted along the international boundary while some are assigned to inland stations--are equal to the interdiction task.

“We feel that we are not only adequately trained but superbly trained” for drug-related and other responsibilities, said William L. Bonnette, acting assistant commissioner for the U.S. Border Patrol in Washington. He said that the patrol’s 18-week training course included instruction in a “full range of police sciences,” including narcotics interdiction, and that U.S. drug experts have provided supplemental preparation.

In the immigrants rights community, there is mounting concern about the now-frequent tendency of officials and others to link two distinct border-related issues--undocumented immigration, which is widely viewed as a victimless crime, and drug trafficking, an offense that carries a strong social stigma.

The constant joining of the two issues “results in an increasingly widespread feeling among Border Patrol agents that all immigrants are narco-terrorist criminal types, when in fact the vast majority are honest, persevering and hard-working people, fleeing abject poverty or civil strife,” said Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group that defends immigrants rights. “It also plays into the hands of xenophobia and other anti-immigrant feelings.”

In fact, U.S. officials say, it is increasingly difficult to separate the traffic of human and drug contraband, as the two have become increasingly entwined in the border area. That, they say, has made the border a much more dangerous place, both for guards and migrants, particularly in the San Diego area, the most heavily traveled crossing zone.

“The interdiction of drugs and illegals is almost synonymous,” said Duke Austin, Washington-based spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, parent body of the Border Patrol. “You simply don’t know when you encounter people crossing the border whether they are carrying drugs or not. . . . I think there’s no question that the character of the old cat-and-mouse game at the border has been changed because of the potential for drugs and more profit. The border patrolman has to be much more cautious now than he was a few years ago.”

Even so, Border Patrol officials reject any suggestions that their treatment of immigrants may be tainted by suspicions of rampant drug-trafficking.

“We always stress that the people we deal with are guests in our country, and we try to treat them like guests,” said Stuart Gary, a patrol agent at the checkpoint along Interstate 5, who spoke as he directed a drug-sniffing dog, Astor, to check a waiting car.

Despite the patrol’s more pronounced profile in drug enforcement, officials say that agents generally are not deliberately attempting to find contraband narcotics. While some agents have been assigned to various interagency drug efforts, such as the border-wide Operation Alliance, Border Patrol agents typically seize drugs as they conduct their normal enforcement rounds.

Border agents are finding more drugs, authorities say, because smugglers--responding to the U.S. enforcement squeeze placed on the South Florida trafficking corridor since the early 1980s--are transporting more and more cocaine and other drugs into the United States via the Mexican border.

“We’re out there doing a normal job, catching people, and we essentially stumble on the drugs,” said Ted A. Swofford, supervisory Border Patrol agent in San Diego, home to about 750 patrol agents, the largest contingent nationwide. “We don’t have drug patrols.”

Added Ben Davidian, regional commissioner in Los Angeles for the INS: “We didn’t go looking for the drug war. It came to us.”

In fact, U.S. Border Patrol agents, patrolling the often-vast open stretches of land between legal ports of entry, seize an estimated 60% of all contraband drugs impounded annually in the border area. U.S. Customs Service officers, who are stationed at the ports of entry and conduct aerial anti-drug patrols, are responsible for finding the bulk of the remaining seized contraband.

Yet officials concede that resourceful traffickers repeatedly thwart enforcement efforts. Smugglers respond efficiently to pressure by finding other smuggling routes and methods. Despite the efforts of the drug war, authorities seize perhaps 10% of all illicit drugs bound for the U.S. market, according to an estimate by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The ingenuity of the border contrabandistas was displayed vividly earlier this month when authorities unearthed an extensive underground smuggling chamber along the boundary line between the border towns of Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta, Mexico.

While lawmen long have discovered drugs hidden in vehicles and on the persons of undocumented border-crossers, officials say they have noted a recent upsurge in the volume of drugs being packed in by so-called “mules,” hired men usually traveling in groups with bags strapped to their backs.

Last month, authorities in San Diego seized 1,000 pounds of marijuana being brought into the United States in mule-train fashion. A year ago, Border Patrol agents recovered 10 duffel bags containing 950 pounds of cocaine that was being brought into the United States via the rugged border canyons in San Diego. Three weeks later, agents stationed at the Border Patrol checkpoint near San Clemente along Interstate 5 discovered 800 pounds of cocaine in a 1983 Oldsmobile sedan.

In Friday’s court decision, the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego was seeking use of the checkpoints as “dual purpose” facilities, to be used for both immigration and drug checks.

“The problems associated with alien smuggling are clearly no more important than the scourge of drugs,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Patrick K. O’Toole explained in court papers.

Federal Judge J. Lawrence Irving rejected the proposal as an unconstitutional infringement on constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. However, U.S. officials say they will probably seek the dual purpose authority in a future case.


Nationwide narcotics enforcement activities by the U.S. Border Patrol

Fiscal Year Seizures Value of drugs (millions) 1989 5,441 $1,191.0 1988 3,257 $700.5 1987 2,751 $582.3 1986 1,300 $185.9 1985 885 $119.8 1984 694 $42.5 1983 647 $29.3 1982 480 $5.2

Source: Immigration and Naturalization Service