U.S. border agents have seized two truckloads of military assault rifles and grenade launchers that were mysteriously smuggled into this country through the Port of Long Beach and were addressed to Mexico City, officials said.
The Mexican consulate said diplomats have been told the ship with the contraband arms came from Asia.
But U.S. officials declined to reveal the origin of the shipments, which contained thousands of parts of disassembled weapons, or what ship brought them to Long Beach.
"We're still doing old-fashioned police work, running down leads," said John Mallamo, the U.S. Customs assistant special agent in charge of investigations in San Diego. "They are obviously weapons of war."
The arms seizure, one of the largest ever made in the U.S., was made a week ago at a warehouse near the Otay Mesa border crossing. No arrest announcements have been made.
One official said it is possible the arms were meant for Mexico's narcotics cartels, which are becoming increasingly violent and brazen in an attempt to intimidate the government.
"We're looking at everything right now," said the official. "They don't have the Arellanos [a Mexican drug cartel] name on the address label. The situation Mexico is in right now, you can't rule it out."
Luis Herrera-Lasso, Mexican consul in San Diego, said he believed the shipments were meant for the drug cartels.
But officials are also exploring the possibility that the arms were meant to be shipped to another country or even to Mexican rebels.
"There is a revolutionary contingent that exists there that is always looking for arms sources," said Sgt. Manuel Rodriguez, head of a cross-border liaison team with the San Diego Police Department. "Realistically, a shipment of that size could go to any criminal enterprise down there. The other side is that obviously South American countries are also having some civil discontent."
Rodriguez added, "Arms are big money in South America."
The bulk of the weapons were M-2 rifles, the kind used by the American military, which can be fired as automatic weapons. Some of the weapons had pieces missing, leading to speculation that more shipments were planned. Officials said the cargo inside the two trucks had been listed as strap hangers and hand tools.
There are indications some of the arms may have come from Vietnam, sources said. Vietnam is known to have stockpiles of American arms captured during the Vietnam War.
A year ago a smuggled shipment of 2,000 Chinese-made assault rifles, similar to the famed Russian AK-47, were seized in the San Francisco Bay Area. That seizure came after an 18-month undercover investigation by federal agents into alleged smuggling by two of China's state-controlled arms exporting companies. Fourteen people and a corporate subsidiary of one of the Chinese firms were indicted, federal officials said. Trials are pending.
That cache was brought to the port of Oakland aboard a ship owned by Chinese government-owned China Ocean Shipping Co. (Cosco), the same company that is caught in a bitter geopolitical dispute involving the Port of Long Beach.
Assistant U.S. Atty. William Schaefer, the federal prosecutor overseeing the investigation, noted that Cosco has not been charged and that no evidence has emerged that the company was part of the smuggling scheme.
In smuggling cases, "you are not going to have charges filed against a company simply based on the fact they were carrying something that was illegal," Schaefer said. "In this day and age, almost everything is shipped by [sealed] container."
U.S. Customs officials said Cosco was not the shipping line that carried the two containers seized in Otay Mesa. Cosco operates on 80 acres at the Port of Long Beach. The port hopes to raze the city's shuttered Naval Station and build a 145-acre cargo terminal for the company by mid-1998.
The plan has met with intense resistance from local residents who oppose U.S. trade with China or fear the terminal will be used for weapons and narcotics smuggling.
Others want to block the project because of the destruction of the taxpayer-funded buildings on the property. And California's two U.S. senators have asked the White House national security advisor and the Secretary of Defense to determine whether there are "security implications" in leasing land to the company.
The 1996 arms shipment has returned to haunt both the Port of Long Beach and the White House. Wang Jun, the president of the company that U.S. officials believe manufactured the seized weapons, was escorted last year to a White House coffee where he met with President Clinton.
Federal investigators are looking into the coffee meetings, where Clinton met with major campaign donors. Now some Long Beach residents are voicing concerns that the White House influenced the port to sign a lease with Cosco.
At the Port of Long Beach, the nation's busiest, the U.S. Customs Service often finds itself overwhelmed. With fewer than 135 inspectors assigned to sift through the equivalent of 8,400 20-foot cargo containers that flow through the port each day, the agency is often dependent on tips and intelligence to find contraband.
That too often makes it easy for smugglers of narcotics, weapons or other contraband to falsify shipping manifests or find other methods to slip their cargo into or out of the country, customs officials say.
But when investigators do uncover smuggled goods, they rarely charge the steamship line or terminal operator that handled the cargo. To do so would be the equivalent of prosecuting an airline because it allowed a passenger hiding cocaine in his suitcase to board a plane, port officials say.
Even though officials said that the shipment seized in Otay Mesa was not transported on a Cosco ship, Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Duncan Hunter on Friday asked Secretary of the Navy John Dalton to delay the transfer of the Long Beach naval facility to Cosco until Congress can investigate the company's role, if any, in arms smuggling. The pair noted that Cosco ships have been detained for violating international safety laws.
O'Connor reported from San Diego, Leeds from Long Beach. Times staff writers Tony Perry in San Diego and Richard Serrano in Washington contributed to this report.