War on Drugs Goes to New Wavelengths : Narcotics: Customs inspectors use costly machine to X-ray suspect vehicles at Mexican border. But its success has been limited.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a typical Friday afternoon at the front line of America's war on drugs: Scores of trucks groan as they idle in a queue that starts in Mexico and creeps toward the most modern border crossing in the southern United States.

As they edge onto U.S. soil, the truckers encounter overworked teams of customs inspectors armed with sniffer dogs, radioactive sensors, laser-guided range finders and a honed intuition. The inspectors randomly swarm over appliance trucks, produce vans, gas tankers and flatbeds piled with flattened junk cars.

At first suspicion, trucks are sent to the far end of the Otay Mesa Cargo Facility, where an average of 1,900 trailers and vans enter daily. Here, Gary Truitt and Jim Brown, two senior customs inspectors, manipulate a console of joysticks, video terminals and computer imagery in an air-conditioned van beside the latest, costly weapon in the United States' counter-narcotics arsenal: the backscatter X-ray scanner, or, as it is commercially known, Cargosearch.

It takes just 10 minutes for a suspect vehicle to move through Cargosearch with its thousands of flying X-ray spots inside a metal building resembling an automatic car wash. Truitt--who is the resident expert on the system--is among the believers in the benefits of the device, calling it "an outstanding machine--it's non-intrusive and it's fast."

There's just one problem: In the first year of operation of the equipment, designed to speed the inspection process, the $3.2-million prototype did not detect one gram of the tons of cocaine and heroin that flooded into the United States from Mexico through key smuggling routes such as this one.

In its trial year, which ended last month, the system did find a few tons of hidden marijuana. And it proved that it can "see" inside a truck--even inside the vehicle's walls, frame and gas tank--but not inside much of its cargo.

As a result, customs inspectors at Otay Mesa say they must still inspect an array of shipments--from pineapples to scrap iron--in the painstaking old-fashioned way: by hand. In the meantime, the X-ray machine's software and hardware have broken down several times during its trial, rendering it idle for hours--and sometimes almost a week--at a time.

While skeptics question whether Cargosearch's benefits match its big price tag, the Customs Service's experiment with the device, proponents and opponents agree, has illustrated the frustrations, shortfalls and qualified successes of the United States' $100-million push to perfect "non-intrusive inspection technology," a critical part of the high-tech war on the multibillion-dollar drug smuggling trade.

Customs Service Commissioner George Weise said in a recent interview that Cargosearch, one of several systems for which Congress allocated $500,000 earlier this year for a cost-effectiveness study, "is not a panacea."

But he said he has heeded his inspectors and agrees with them that the device is an effective, efficient drug-smuggling deterrent. Customs plans to buy as many as a dozen Cargosearch machines to build a network of X-ray sentries along the Mexican border with California, Arizona and Texas. Total cost: more than $30 million.

Weise said he knows the devices are both pricey and imperfect: "It's a prototype. It's the first time we've tried it. Certainly there are growing pains with it."

But he said the manufacturer is upgrading the prototype and improving the next generation of Cargosearch machines, which he called "an important tool to have in our arsenal."

That Weise would use such language is notable, because when it comes to the fight against drugs, officials say they are engaged in nothing less than a war. Mexico's wily, powerful cartels have stymied U.S. enforcement efforts by employing sophisticated, ever-changing tactics--and strategic payoffs. The result has been that more than $7 billion in cocaine gets smuggled into the United States each year, the Drug Enforcement Administration estimates.

As for the cash-strapped Customs Service, it has been forced to rely almost entirely on the Pentagon in recent years for its high-tech anti-smuggling weapons.

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Cargosearch is just one of many devices that sprang from Defense Department research and development. Collaborating with corporations and the Customs Service, Pentagon scientists and engineers in the Advanced Research Products Agency have built on technology developed in the 1980s to help verify the reduction of Soviet nuclear weapons, in which U.S. inspectors used a high-tech tool that let them see inside Soviet trucks carrying missiles, averting more difficult, time-consuming searches.

But these first-generation "flying spot" X-ray machines lacked the capacity to see inside the missiles themselves. The challenge for authorities, one Pentagon analyst said, was to upgrade the device so it could do just that, meaning it could be used in the drug war, examining not only inside walls and frames of smugglers' trucks but also inside cargoes.

A consortium of high-tech companies, led by Analytical Systems Engineering Corp., eventually developed a system with Pentagon financing. It was 40 times more powerful than Cargosearch. In a Pentagon-sponsored test in Tacoma, Wash., researchers proved that the device could see inside almost any cargo arriving at the port. The device could penetrate 13 inches of steel, three inches of lead or eight feet of water, a company spokesman said, adding that the device also correctly identified simulated drug shipments 92% of the time in a three-month Customs Service trial.

But the Tacoma machine required enormous power and elaborate safety measures to protect customs inspectors from excess radiation. Further, the device was expensive--at least twice the price of Cargosearch--and sources said the Customs Service declined to foot the bill even for its maintenance. The machine was decommissioned and dismantled Jan. 3.

"It could see through things that the Otay Mesa machine cannot see through," said a senior customs agent who has worked with both systems. "But it was terribly expensive. . . . I would probably like something in between the two."

As the Tacoma test was under way, American Science & Engineering Inc., a small company based in Billerica, Mass., was putting the finishing touches on Cargosearch. After years of research--most of it financed by the Pentagon--American Science had developed the lower-power, lower-cost backscatter system. Again with Defense Department funding, the Customs Service installed it at Otay Mesa soon after the ultramodern cargo port opened in August, 1994.

But records of the machine's performance in its test year show that Cargosearch failed to detect any hard drugs at a border crossing where customs inspectors seized 468 pounds of cocaine and four pounds of heroin through other means in 1993. Documents also show the machine suffered problems--software breakdowns and a faulty chain mechanism--that reduced its efficiency. In the week a Times reporter visited Otay Mesa, for example, customs agents said the device functioned for just 26 hours of its 66-hour peak efficiency.

From 17,650 scans that inspectors say the Cargosearch made in its first year, there were just 60 drug seizures--most of them marijuana. It also detected a large shipment of Cuban cigars, illegal medicines and 10 undocumented migrants stowed in a secret truck compartment.

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But Customs Service officials say that on the basis of the marijuana seizures alone--more than 8,000 pounds, with an estimated street value of at least $30 million--the machine already has paid for itself many times over.

Those seizures, however, are a fraction of the 9 million pounds of marijuana that the agency estimates enters the United States from Mexico each year.

And while Weise and other advocates emphasize that the machine's mere presence has deterrent value, border inspectors indicated that its mechanical limitations--most notably its inability to see inside certain shipments--could account for its failure to detect hard drugs.

"If we had a truckload of jalapeno pepper cans, for example, the machine could see the cans, but it couldn't see what was inside the cans," one customs supervisor said.

That was a clear reference to a U.S. indictment issued in San Diego alleging that Mexico's powerful Sinaloa drug cartel tried to smuggle seven tons of cocaine across the California border using just that method in 1993. Enterprising customs agents discovered the drugs with dogs, informants and intuition.

Despite the high praise for Cargosearch from its main operators--inspectors Truitt and Brown--they and other agents also gave high marks to other, less costly high-tech detection devices such as the K910 Buster.

"The Buster" is a hand-held device, also developed by the Pentagon, that uses gamma radiation to detect anomalies in a structure's density--aberrations caused, for example, by contraband hidden in truck tires and gas tanks. It does many of the things Cargosearch does. Its cost? $4,700.

"The Cargosearch is a nice thing to have," one inspector said. "But it is just one of many weapons in our arsenal. In the end, the best tools we've got right now are the dogs, the Buster and, of course, good intelligence and intuition."

Congress has expressed guarded enthusiasm for Cargosearch and allocated about half the money that the Customs Service needs for its border network.

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HOW IT WORKS

The Cargosearch works this way: A chain-drive mechanism locks onto the wheels of a suspect vehicle, which is pulled over two sophisticated X-ray machines just under the pavement. The X-ray machines bombard the truck with 240 spots per minute. Those "flying" X-ray spots bounce off antennas installed on the building's roof and examine the truck from the top.

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