U.S. Customs Service inspectors are on alert for Mexican drug smugglers using official-looking Customs credentials to avoid inspections and slip loads of cocaine hidden in private vehicles over the border.
One of the identification cards was obtained by The Times from a source in Mexico who said that a Mexican drug ring, which allegedly includes Tijuana businessmen and law enforcement officials, possesses several of the falsified credentials.
Bobbie Cassidy, Customs spokeswoman in San Diego, said the agency would also launch an internal investigation to determine if the wallet-size cards were stolen from the district office. Upon closer examination, however, she expressed doubts about the cards' authenticity.
Mike Fleming, spokesman for the Customs regional office in Long Beach, said Wednesday the blank ID card will be examined by Secret Service investigators who are experts at spotting counterfeit bills and documents.
"We're very concerned about them (identification cards) and want to determine their authenticity. It's terrible if drug smugglers are using them," Fleming said.
Cassidy said authentic blank identification cards are kept in a locked file in Customs District Director Rudy Camacho's offices and access to them is strictly limited. But the local office does not have "a specific accounting process" for keeping track of the cards stored there, she added.
The Mexican source was unaware of how or when the smugglers obtained the blank credentials. Drug ring members are apparently resorting to the cards in an attempt to move small loads of cocaine, which is reportedly piling up in warehouses throughout northern Baja California.
The Tijuana-based ring has been unable to move large amounts of the drug across the border because of heightened awareness by U.S. border and drug agents since the recent discovery of the "narco tunnel" under the border near Tijuana's international airport. In addition, law enforcement efforts have been stepped up since the May assassination of a Mexican cardinal in Guadalajara, allegedly by San Diego gang members hired by the Arellano drug cartel of Tijuana.
The Arellano brothers are being hunted on both sides of the border by U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officers.
"This investigation has caused a major disruption to the Arellano organization and others that smuggle tons of cocaine across the border," said Jack Hook, Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in San Diego. "They have not been able to conduct business as usual."
According to the Mexican source, the Tijuana drug ring plans to issue the false Customs ID cards to English-speaking couriers to flash at the border in hopes that U.S. inspectors will wave them through as a professional courtesy.
A veteran Customs inspector said one such incident may have occurred July 12. The inspector, who requested anonymity, said a rookie inspector allowed a car with three men to pass through his lane without inspection after one of the occupants showed Customs credentials.
The inspector later had second thoughts and told co-workers what had happened.
However, Cassidy said it is against Customs policy to wave anybody through an inspection lane--even if the individual displays a U.S. government ID card. In addition, Customs' code of conduct prohibits inspectors from displaying their credentials when entering the United States from a foreign country.