U.S. Customs Service agents Thursday night seized three containers from a New York-based humanitarian aid group, hours after the activists claimed to have brought more than 30 pounds of a Cuban-made rat poison across America's southern border unchallenged.
Customs officials in Washington said that the material was detained at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint well inside Texas and that the agency was investigating whether the Pastors for Peace violated anti-smuggling and public health laws by failing to declare the pesticide at the border crossing.
Citing public safety rather than politics, customs officials had vowed to seize the shipment of the rodenticide Biorat and to block the group's effort to break a U.S. economic embargo by importing unlicensed goods from Communist-run Cuba.
But moments after his convoy crossed into McAllen, Texas, on Thursday morning, the Rev. Lucius Walker Jr. insisted in a telephone interview that he and his group told U.S. Customs agents they had the rat poison and that the agents neither searched for nor seized it.
"When they asked if we had anything to declare, someone on the bus shouted, 'Biorat!' " said the Brooklyn preacher, who had announced his plans to bring the product to the U.S. last week. "They didn't seize anything. They didn't examine anything. I'm trying to figure it out myself."
"That is absolutely false," said Dean Boyd, spokesman for the U.S. Customs Service in Washington.
"We had negative declarations from each of the individuals in the group and the reverend himself," he said. "Our people asked every single individual, including Mr. Walker, if they had anything to declare, and they were emphatic in stating they had nothing."
Boyd said that the case has been turned over to customs investigators, adding that border agents had, in fact, X-rayed the vehicles in the activists' convoy and found nothing unusual.
"If, in fact, Biorat was imported across the border," he said, "it would constitute possible smuggling violations, false declarations and violations of Environmental Protection Agency regulations."
On Wednesday, Boyd said the agency's plan to seize the rat poison had nothing to do with Bush administration policies toward Cuba. Biorat, he said flatly, is banned under U.S. health and environmental regulations.
"This is not a Cuba issue. It's a public health issue," Boyd said. "Biorat is not admissible into the United States. It poses a public safety hazard, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention]."
Walker's group successfully challenged the 4-decade-old embargo from the north at the same border crossing in Texas last week, bringing about 80 tons of unlicensed humanitarian aid to Cuba--his 12th such shipment.
From Havana, he openly challenged U.S. officials to block the shipment of Biorat, asserting that the move would "show the true colors" of President Bush's Cuba policy, which many analysts expect will be more strident than that of the Clinton administration. His group's Web site announced the date and time his party would be crossing into McAllen.
Backed by the claims of the Cuban scientists who developed Biorat and the Cuban company that has marketed it to countries throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa since 1994, the pastor insisted that the product had been proved safe for humans and deadly for rats.
But this week, customs officials in Washington produced letters, documents and other research suggesting that Biorat is not safe for humans.
A 1998 letter from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta stated that Biorat "poses a public health risk worldwide, yet continues to be marketed." A 1996 article in the British medical journal Lancet asserted that the product "could easily cause food-borne disease in people."
The bottom line, customs officials said, was an Environmental Protection Agency statement this week: "Biorat is not registered for use in the U.S. . . . It is not permitted to be imported into the U.S."
Such criticism is not new to Biorat's scientists and salespeople in Havana. They call it a disinformation campaign engineered by the U.S. government, which Cuba asserts has waged economic war against the island since President Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959.
During the morning telephone interview from the U.S.-Mexican border, Walker said his group still planned to distribute the rat killer as humanitarian aid to community groups in city neighborhoods where rat infestations are blamed for debilitating diseases.
But customs officials said Thursday night that EPA examiners would determine whether the containers actually hold Biorat. "We have no idea whether this is, in fact, Biorat. It could be a box of oatmeal," Boyd said. "We won't know until we test it."