We are standing on the pavement watching inspections at the land border port of El Paso. Columns of pick-up trucks and 1970s vintage American-made cars inch toward the inspection points from Ciudad Juarez, drivers stopping briefly to converse with Customs and Border Protection officers who man the booths in blue uniforms looking for nervous eyes or lumped seat cushions. Somebody in our group asks our guide, a close-cropped CBP inspector, how they pick which vehicles to pull aside for secondary inspection.
“I can’t really get into all of that,” he says, suspiciously eyeballing one of the individuals in our group with the enviable capability of looking as if he has just come off a three-day binger no matter whether he’s dressed in jeans and a t-shirt or a suit and tie. “Mostly, though, we can tell by looking at them,” he says. “Our officers are trained to spot unusual behavior.”
He entertains the group with the weird ways in which smugglers try to move drugs and contraband across the border. There are the usual cocaine-filled balloons, swallowed like pigs-in-a-blanket and later emptied by what must be a painful process of defecation and sweating and praying. If any of the balloons were to break while still making their way through the intestines, it could be deadly. There are the panels removed from car-door interiors, filled with blocks of meth or pot or cash. The hollowed-out shoes. The ones dumb enough to simply throw the drugs in the trunk and cover them with an old jacket.
Things are getting weirder, though, with the increase in human smuggling. Rather than drugs, more and more people are being folded up and stuffed into tiny compartments, sometimes two, three, four at a time like midgets tumbling out of circus clown cars. “You get used to spotting the lumps in the seats and knowing you’ve got drugs there. You pop out a knife and jab it into seat and the evidence spills out,” our CBP guide says. “Now you’ve got to be careful. One of the times we were poking around with a knife in the backseat and we got a yelp and a por favor! por favor! Cut some poor guy in the hand.”
As more drugs and illegal aliens are being smuggled northbound, there has been a similar spike in guns and cash heading south. The same false dashboard compartments and hollowed suitcases that carry contraband into the United States are used to move the cash back into Mexico. That has always been the case – the drugs moving north and the drug money moving south. The guns, though, are a newer development, at least at this volume. Just as the Mexican cartels are only too happy to provide Americans with the meth they can inject into their veins, so are we only too happy to provide them with automatic machine guns they need to kill one another.
It’s illegal to bring guns into Mexico, isn’t it? somebody asks. The officer smiles, and though he doesn’t roll his eyes you know he wants to. It’s as if somebody had asked whether it’s illegal to smoke pot in college. “Yeah, it’s illegal,” he says, and jabs his thumb toward the line of American brand eighteen-wheelers waiting for passage south of the border. “They usually come in big shipments in those trucks.”
According to the Government Accountability Office, more than 90 percent of guns seized in Mexico with traceable origins are smuggled in from the United States.
With the flood of drugs heading north, and the flood of guns traveling south – and the illicit revenues flowing in both directions – it is disconcerting to realize that, nearly a year into the Obama Administration, there is still no nominee to lead the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. No nominee to take charge of the ATF – the law enforcement bureau responsible for enforcing gun and explosives laws. That the man nominated to head Customs and Border Protection still waits idly to be confirmed. The city of Juarez, literally a stone’s throw across the border from El Paso, plays host to the world’s most vicious drug cartels. The city just tallied its highest murder rate ever – a stunning feat considering that some 1,600 people were murdered in that city alone last year. Human smuggling and gun running is reaching unprecedented levels in contemporary law enforcement. Indeed, the president of Mexico all but accused the United States of arming the violent drug lords of Mexico by failing to staunch the flow of weapons. Kidnappings and carjackings are routine along the border. The State Department warns Americans that they travel in the vicinity of Juarez, the entire Mexican state of Chihuahua really, at their own peril. Yet, with the exception of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, practically the entire law enforcement and security infrastructure for the southern border of America is lacking in permanent leadership. The talk of meeting the “epidemic” of violence along the border seems almost bizarre under such circumstances.
We tour through the visa processing center inside the El Paso port’s main facility. Rows of simple aluminum-framed chairs fill the center of the room, like a convention for Bridge players, Mexican families and individual workers grasping tabs of paper with numbers, waiting for their turn to approach one of the many pexiglas windows, seeking work and redemption, or maybe just a better deal on some shoes, across the border. Behind the windows, CBP officers with glocks strapped to their belts review documents and interview applicants seeking to legally enter the United States. They pound plastic stamps with official seals on tedious reams of paper. Handcuffs hang from various chairbacks. It’s like the local DMV, only friendlier. The citizens of Juarez, and those who have traveled northbound from places south in Mexico, wait patiently in a way that most Americans could not bear. They are used to the waits.
Standing in the agricultural inspection area, we gaze upon a riot of fruits and vegetables and pigs feet and roosters. The walls are adorned with rows of jars filled with formaldehyde and small animal parts and agricultural byproducts, a mad scientist’s dusty laboratory. Everywhere there is evidence of the vehicles of foot-and-mouth disease and crop pestilence, all seized by Customs officers from Mexican citizens trying to cross the border. Perhaps we can stop the spread of Swine Flu if only we empty enough pockets and rummage through enough back seats. The desire to touch everything is overwhelming. An indigenous kind of Mr. Potato Head, pantyhose stuffed with some quick-growing Mexican plant, sits bodyless on the table, painted eyes leering. I poke at a severed pig’s foot, huge and faded and unreal looking. I expect Styrofoam or maybe even more stuffed pantyhose; it is solid, dull, meaty.
And, then, like the river breachers and desert scramblers caught every day sneaking into the United States along the southern border, we are delivered into the custody of the Border Patrol. We are going to tour the long wall being built across the southern border of the United States. The epicenter of the movement of drugs, laundered cash, hard weaponry and smuggled human beings. Ground zero in the nation’s heated debate over immigration reform.