Drugs Priority for Customs Director

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the legions of motorists exasperated by the seemingly ceaseless delays along the U.S.-Mexico border, Rudy M. Camacho has sobering news: Things may not get better, even though the number of U.S. customs inspectors posted to the border is expected to rise by about one-third in coming months.

"I think it would be irresponsible for me to say we're going to cut all the waiting times in half," Camacho said Friday. He took office this week as U.S. Customs district director in San Diego. "We have to make the call once we have the people on board."

Camacho, 38, an Air Force veteran who served in Southeast Asia and a 15-year-employee of the Customs Service, assumed his post Monday after being appointed by Customs Service Commissioner Carol B. Hallett. He replaces Allan J. Rappoport, who retired last fall after heading the San Diego customs operation for eight years. (An interim district director had been in charge since Rappoport's departure.)

Camacho, a Mexican-American and native of Tucson, is the second Latino to head the San Diego customs district in recent years. Manuel Najera was the district director from 1978-80.

Camacho's task is daunting. Government and independent studies have long cited inefficiencies in the operations of both the Customs Service and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, a separate agency that works closely with customs, although the two bureaus have a longstanding rivalry.

In the San Diego district, the customs staff of 467 employees is spread thinly along the entire California-Mexico border, which includes both San Diego and Imperial counties. All crossings are under Camacho's jurisdiction, including five land ports of entry, among them the giant San Ysidro facility--the world's busiest land border crossing. (In the most recent fiscal year, officials say that more than 50 million visitors--almost 1 million people a week--entered U.S. territory via San Ysidro.) San Diego-based customs inspectors also work out of Lindbergh Field and at the San Diego seaport.

The border here is a primary corridor for a wide range of commerce--both legitimate and illicit. Billons of dollars worth of manufactured goods, foodstuffs, clothing and other goods from Mexico are exported annually into California. And large amounts of items and drugs are also smuggled across, according to federal authorities.

Meanwhile, concerns grow about the flow of toxic material and other contraband through the border.

In recent years, the amount of goods and people entering California from Mexico has risen substantially. The impending prospect of a free-trade pact with Mexico would only accelerate what is already a booming exchange of goods, services and humanity.

"I can see San Diego being at the pinnacle of the commercial trade business, both in Mexico and the United States," declared Camacho, who came to San Diego from the Arizona border city of Nogales, where he served as assistant district director for inspection and control for the last two years. He now lives in San Diego with his wife and two children.

In an interview Friday at his downtown San Diego office, Camacho, who speaks with the authoritativeness of an efficient bureaucrat, promised little relief for border-area motorists, merchants, importers, exporters and others who are perpetually angered by inspection tie-ups.

Officials in both Tijuana and San Diego say the delays--frequently requiring that northbound vehicles wait in line for an hour or more--harm both cities' economies by discouraging international visitors and slowing trans-border commerce.

But Camacho, like his predecessor, made it clear that his priority is deterring drug traffic, not facilitating international trade. Border business representatives have called for more emphasis to be placed on moving legitimate vehicles through inspection. But the new district director seems unlikely to shift priorities.

"Our war on drugs is paramount," said Camacho, a rodeo aficionado and avid horseman who began his customs career in 1975 handling a drug-sniffing dog at the border in Arizona. "One of the things that we have to ensure is that the ports of entry are not compromised as a conduit for illegal activity."

In fact, the legal crossings between Mexico and the United States have long been used to ferry a wide array of contraband into U.S. territory, from liquor during Prohibition to the illicit drugs of today. The problem is simple: There are simply too many individuals and vehicles crossing each day to allow extensive searches of each one.

Last October, customs officials at the Otay Mesa commercial crossing discovered a gas-tanker truck laden with more than 4 tons of cocaine--the second-largest such stash ever found in California. Inspectors allowed the driver to walk away while the truck was being searched; he remains a fugitive, a customs spokeswoman said.

That load, along with several other large busts, have resulted in a huge increase in drug seizures during the current fiscal year, which began last Oct. 1. (During all of fiscal 1990, which ended last September, customs inspectors only seized a total of 203 pounds of cocaine in the San Diego district, officials said.)

Now, Camacho says, he is assessing operations to determine what changes he will institute. One new idea, he said, is the appointment of an ombudsman to serve as a liaison between customs authorities and representatives of the export-import business. He says he hopes to streamline processing of such trade.

As for complaints that some customs inspectors at the border are rude to travelers, Camacho defends the quality of agents and said he demands that inspectors be courteous, despite their sometimes high-pressure job. "I do not tolerate abuse of any person, whether it is a criminal we caught at the line or somebody's grandmother coming through," said Camacho. "There's a sense of professionalism that has to be retained."

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