(The 10th article in the 12-part BorderLines series "Aliens, Crime, and Drugs: Makiing the Connection.") On both sides of the border, marijuana is the dangerous good that has the most prominent place in the drug war. During its nearly year-long deployment in the border state of Chihuahua, the Mexican army points to the tonnage of marijuana seizures as the best evidence of its success in its campaign against the drug organizations. The army regularly stages photo-ops not of captured drug lords and lieutenants but of bundles of seized marijuana going up in flames. Forty years after President Nixon’s Operation Intercept, the Border Patrol is still hailing the quantity of marijuana it seizes as evidence that it is winning the drug war. The Tucson Sector Border Patrol recently announced that it had seized more than 500,000 pounds of marijuana since October 1 – a 22% increase over the same period last year. In the same period the Border Patrol reported having seized only 53.13 ounces of heroin, 65.25 pounds of cocaine, and 6.39 pounds of meth. Marijuana, which ignited the drug war four decades ago, remains central to the drug war as it plays out in Mexico and along the border. According to the DEA, the smuggling of marijuana into the United States from Mexico has increased over the past two years to meet a new surge in U.S. demand. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency that includes the Border Patrol, explains its drug war mission this way:
“Drug interdiction is a priority undertaking encapsulated by CBP’s overall mission to secure the nation’s borders and prevent unlawful entry of dangerous people and goods while facilitating the legitimate flow of travel and trade. CBP’s border and border nexus drug interdiction activities contribute to the National Drug Control Strategy by disrupting the flow of drugs into the United States.”
CBP has “performance metrics” to measure its contribution to the drug war. Although it doesn’t set target goals, it does measure the quantity of drugs seized annually. Its “performance objective” is “using a risk-based approach, [to] deploy and employ the most effective inspection and scanning technology available at designated land border ports, airports, seaports, permanent Border Patrol traffic checkpoints, and international areas…” Its “risk-based approach” consistently results in marijuana as being the top dangerous good seized. In 2008 CBP seized 2,471,931 pounds of marijuana. That’s up from the 1,339,492 pounds seized in 2005 but down 11% from 2007 seizures. It also reports cocaine and heroin seizures in its annual performance reports. In 2008 CBP seized 178,770 pounds of cocaine and 2,178 pounds of heroin.
Outdoing even the DEA in announcements of drug-war victories, the Border Patrol issues a flood of press releases about its drug seizures. The Border Patrol has announced a string of seizures in 24-hour drug-seizure “busts.” Over a 24-hour period in the Hidalgo County in Texas, the Border Patrol boasted that it had seized more than $3.6 million worth of marijuana.
About the same time, on the northern border Border Patrol agents at the Sweet Water port of entry in Montana seized $284,000 worth of “drug paraphernalia” in the form of 5,380 assorted pipes and bongs. “I've never seen so many shipments at a time," said Sandy Owens, chief of the Sweet Grass Port of Entry for 16 years.
One of the hot spots for marijuana interdiction is in the Border Patrol’s Yuma, Arizona sector. As elsewhere along the border, Border Patrol agents aren’t arresting many illegal border crossers lately. On some days, the immigrant arrest count is in the single digits. But all along the border BP agents are still focused on their drug war mission, especially at the dozens of permanent and temporary checkpoints that are mounted along roads within the 100-mile wide swath of borderlands in which they operate. Checkpoint Madness
The merger of the drug war and the immigrant crackdown is on vivid display throughout the borderlands at an increasing number of CBP highway checkpoints. These checkpoints – 33 permanent and numerous “tactical” or temporary ones - are raising the ire of borderlands residents who are being repeatedly stopped, interrogated, and having their vehicles searched.
Borderlands residents complain that the permanent and tactical checkpoints are violating their constitutional rights and victimizing legal U.S. residents, while smugglers avoid the permanent checkpoints and deploy scouts to notify them of the tactical ones.
Last year, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in a March 4, 2008 statement to the Homeland Security Subcommittee questioned the need and purpose of the new Border Patrol checkpoints along the northern border and told a story about when he was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint:
“It was about 125 miles from the border. In a car with license plate one on it from Vermont. With little letters underneath it that said US Senate. We were stopped and ordered to get out of the car and prove my citizenship. And I said “what authority are you acting under?” and one of your agents pointed to his gun and said ‘that’s all the authority I need.’ Encouraging way to enter our country!”
An investigative report in the Phoenix New Times (March 13) found that a permanent Border Patrol checkpoint in the Yuma Sector was reaping thousands of recreational drug users. While vehicles passing the checkpoint on Interstate 8 are not routinely searched by Border Patrol agents, K9 dogs go up and down the line of stopped traffic sniffing for traces of illegal drugs.
Over the past year, the Border Patrol has mounted a joint operation, called Operation Citation, in conjunction with the Yuma County Sheriffs Department to issue local-jurisdiction fines for drug possession. In a twist of the “interoperability” promoted by DHS’ Criminal Alien and Secure Communities programs, instead of having local police certified as immigration enforcement officers, immigration and border control agents are certified to enforce local drug laws.
In the past 11 months, the two Border Patrol checkpoints along the Arizona-Sonora border – “the biggest weed traps in the country” -- have nabbed more than 1,200 people for marijuana possession.
Before Operation Citation, Border Patrol agents confiscated drug paraphernalia and small quantities of personal-use drugs and then sent the subject’s information to the county attorney’s office for prosecution. Now, BP agents are cross-certified by the sheriff’s department to issue citations and fines, which has netted the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year.
It’s a zero-tolerance policy, as Border Patrol spokesman Jeremy Schappell told the New Times: "If we get just a pipe, they are getting written up. If it's a seed, they are getting written up."
Next: Breaking the Connections
Photo: New Times at Yuma checkpoint