An agent with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection dips beneath the rear bumper of a white Jeep Wrangler during a busy morning at the Calexico port of entry — the third busiest in the nation. He sweeps his flashlight slowly along the undercarriage of the vehicle, rapping lightly with his knuckles in the search for secret compartments that could be stuffed with illicit drugs.
Ten years ago, he would have searched mostly for marijuana and cocaine, but as the years have progressed, his targets have become more deadly and harder to find.
Now, he keeps his eyes peeled for packages of heroin and methamphetamine, narcotics the State Health Department credits for more than 500 overdose deaths in Riverside County from 2010 to 2012.
The recent surge in technological advancement has made concealing this contraband easier in some ways, as some trafficking organizations use drones and ultralight planes to skirt the law while others launch kettlebells of compacted narcotics over the border with high-powered catapults.
The same technology that makes these acts of avoiding the law possible is matched by that which allows their detection by the El Centro Sector of the Border Patrol — the first and final lines of defense between the drug traffickers and their users.
Established more than 90 years ago, the El Centro Sector of the Border Patrol is responsible for 71 miles of the southwest international border spanning from the Jacumba Mountains to the Imperial Sand Dunes. Operating stations are in Calexico, El Centro, Riverside and Indio, with checkpoints located just south of the Coachella Valley on highways 86 and 111 near the Salton Sea that are among the busiest in the state.
Locating undocumented immigrants may be the Border Patrol’s primary capacity, but interdicting drug traffickers transporting thousands of dollars of narcotics is a close second with more immediate consequences.
If smugglers make it past these checkpoints, their path to major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and interstate routes is unimpeded, Border Patrol agents said, allowing Mexican and Central American drugs to spread all over the U.S.
The FBI’s Heroin Signature Program found that almost 40 percent of the samples they classified nationally in 2012 were Mexican in origin — the largest percentage in 20 years. According to the report, Mexico has become the top foreign supplier of methamphetamine used inside the U.S. since 2007.
“This is a major trafficking route,” spokesman for the El Centro Sector Border Patrol Guillermo Esparza said. “This checkpoint is considered the last line of defense.”
Since 2005, the makeup of drugs seized by the Border Patrol has transformed substantially, as those most commonly associated with border operations such as marijuana and cocaine fall out of vogue in favor of more addictive and dangerous narcotics such as heroin and methamphetamine, the seizure of which has risen by more than a thousand percent during that time, according to annual fiscal reports.
These numbers might not tell the whole story when it comes to the amount of drugs that make it across the border illicitly, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s annual threat analysis said they’re largely representative of overall trends.
Marijuana continues to make up the vast majority of illicit substances seized by Border Patrol agents nationally, contributing almost 2 million pounds every year, but local agents have seen a 77 percent reduction in the past decade to around 5,500 pounds a year.
International smuggling organizations now attempt to smuggle larger volumes of marijuana in at a time, often through larger cargo containers, according to Calexico Ports of Entry Director Billy Whitford. These high-quantity, high-risk operations are largely designed to make up for the relatively low price of selling “soft drugs.”
“The profit margin for smuggling a couple of kilos of marijuana is much less than smuggling hard narcotics,” Whitford said.
Cocaine, one of the more traditionally smuggled hard drugs, remains a profitable choice among smugglers, despite crackdowns on the trade that resulted in a 10-year, 59 percent drop in national seizures and 37 percent drop within the El Centro Sector.
Where cocaine sales have fallen off, methamphetamine and heroin have risen with a local increase of 1,022 and 12,878 percent, respectively, in the past 10 years.
“I think what it is is that methamphetamine on the street has become a cheaper drug, a cheaper high,” Whitford said. “We’ve seen an increase in methamphetamine labs being set up in Mexico.”
“(The smugglers) have been trying to nickel-and-dime it,” Esparza added. “They’re switching to harder drugs that have a higher selling value so they can bring them in in smaller quantities.”
Even more concerning, Esparza said, is the additive Border Patrol agents have been finding in the heroin confiscated recently.
Fentanyl, an extremely powerful prescription opioid that raises the potency of heroin by 30 to 50 percent and which can be deadly in doses as small as 0.25 micrograms, increases profit margins for dealers when laced with narcotics.
The drug has been leaving a trail of overdoses in its wake for years, killing more than 1,000 people from 2005 to 2007 when the DEA was able to dismantle a single lab in Mexico and end the surge of production.
The current outbreak was recognized on March 18, when the DEA issued a national alert calling Fentanyl-laced street drugs “a threat to public safety,” after the National Forensic Laboratory Information System reported a 254 percent increase in Fentanyl-laced samples they analyzed this year.
The appearance of Fentanyl in drugs in the El Centro Sector is concerning to the California Department of Health Care Services.
Even though it doesn’t deal directly with the drugs coming over the border, spokesperson Anthony Cava said the department has been working to improve access to overdose rescue drugs like naloxone while cutting down on the abuse of prescription drugs like Fentanyl.
Cava hopes these measures will be enough to protect drug users from the fatal use of fillers, but the DEA fears the future’s body toll will echo that of the past.
21st Century Smugglers
Just as the makeup of the border’s drug problem has changed, so have the organizations working to smuggle them. In just the past decade, the trafficking landscape has made a dramatic shift toward that of technologically-advanced criminal enterprises.
In an increasingly flat world, smugglers are taking advantage of social media and cellular networks to fine-tune their operations and change plans at a moment’s notice.
“The days of agents lying-in-wait for hours at a time or simply saturating an area with increased patrols and manpower were old techniques that would not be met with the same success against new networked (smuggling organizations),” U.S. Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher noted in a 2014 year-end report.
To combat these modern drug operations, the agency has undergone some changes. Two years after the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was established and soon integrated with the U.S. Border Patrol to become U.S. Customs and Border Protection — an organizational shift that brought with it a boost in funding from $6 billion in fiscal year 2004 to nearly $13 billion in 2014.
This integration of both intelligence and resources has helped narrow the focus and broaden the scope of border security, Stickles said, in addition to making available the use of technology usually used in military operations.
The Calexico ports of entry and El Centro checkpoints rely heavily on the use of high-definition X-ray machines that allow agents to check for anomalies in vehicles. This technology has been in use for the past few years, but has already made a substantial difference, Border Patrol agents said.
“We’ve become much more dependent on technology over the last 10 years,” Whitford said. “We have imaging systems in the vehicle environment and the cargo processing facility. … Now we can scan a vehicle in a matter of seconds instead of it taking a couple of minutes to an hour to inspect. It’s definitely enhanced our enforcement capabilities.”
In addition to mobile patrols, the El Centro Sector of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol runs several checkpoints. The Calexico ports of entry are the third busiest in the U.S., with more than 4 million vehicles and 4.1 million pedestrians passing through annually, but the Highway 86 checkpoint near the Salton Sea is widely regarded as the last line of defense for drugs making their way to major cities like Los Angeles. The Highway 111 checkpoint, while significantly less busy than the others, prevents drugs that have already been introduced into the U.S. from spreading any further.
Equipment like license plate readers and fiber optic cameras used to peer into the interior of a possibly booby-trapped car also help keep agents from being harmed.
“We’re different than any other law enforcement agency in that people come to us instead of us coming to the people,” Stickles said. “So we have to have a way to have the upper hand.”
These new methods may not be enough as trafficking organizations continue to utilize technology to avoid detection. Smugglers now commonly use drones and ultralight planes to avoid traffic stops and ground surveillance techniques.
In August 2013, Border Patrol agents near the Salton Sea were able to confiscate more than $657,000 in drugs —189 pounds of marijuana and 12 pounds of methamphetamine — after the ultralight aircraft in which they were flown over the border was discovered abandoned one mile east of Highway 111. One ultralight was even found as far inland as Interstate 8 and Highway 86, less than 90 miles from Thermal, Esparza said.
As some smugglers work to fly over the heads of Border Patrol agents, others try to move beneath their feet. In April, intelligence gained from a separate bust led to the discovery of a 230-foot, lit and ventilated underground tunnel that led from a Mexicali home to a desert location well across the U.S. border.
Such advanced and intensely-engineered methods of smuggling show a more modern side of the trafficking organizations long known for their ingenuity and deep ties.
The strengths that come with the interconnectivity of the modern smuggler also comes with weakness — a loss of anonymity.
Cell phones helped the Lozano-Gonzalez family traffic methamphetamine and heroin into the Imperial Valley for more than two years, but they also brought about the operation’s demise.
Federal wiretaps recorded thousands of text messages and phone calls during a year-long investigation that were used in U.S. District Court to charge 43 people with conspiring to import and distribute illicit drugs.
Prosecutors claimed the organization would pick up the narcotics in Mexicali, use pedestrians and secret compartments in vehicles to smuggle them through the Calexico ports of entry and then transport them to a house in Brawley, from which they would be sold throughout the Imperial Valley.
After months of surveillance, a series of phone and text exchanges over two days in May 2014 between co-defendants Francisco Lozano-Moreno, Carolina Orozco-Vasquez and Jesus Gonzalez-Lozano tied the case together, prosecutors said.
The evening of May 18, Gonzalez-Lozano, who prosecutors claimed was the mastermind of U.S. operations, called Lozano-Moreno, his source in Mexico, asking for “work.” Lozano-Moreno said he would help him out once his “guy crosses (the border).”
The two arranged for Gonzalez-Lozano to buy a half-pound of methamphetamine. The next day, he texted Orozco-Vasquez, his load driver, who planned to pick up the drugs in Brawley once they crossed the border.
Agents arrived too late to catch Orozco-Vasquez picking up the drugs from the Brawley stash house about 9 p.m., but radioed an El Centro police officer, who stopped the car on a traffic violation and called in Border Patrol agents.
A police dog was able to conduct a quick search, revealing the half-pound of methamphetamine hidden beneath the hood of the engine compartment.
At 10:39 p.m., Gonzalez-Lozano texted Lozano-Moreno telling him to take his blue car for payment because “it went to hell.”
For almost six more months, the team of federal and local law enforcement assigned to the case worked to keep up with the constantly-changing disposable phones and the trafficker to whom they belonged.
On Oct. 21, 2014, agents raided 38 homes in Calipatria, El Centro and Brawley. After seizing 30 pounds of methamphetamine worth $1 million, 14 guns and an unspecified amount of cash, police arrested 43 people in the smuggling conspiracy.
While many of the 43 pleaded guilty to lesser charges, Lozano-Moreno, Gonzalez-Lozano and Orozco-Vasquez fought law enforcement’s use of wiretaps and ability to tie the “burner” phone numbers to a specific person.
Texting lingo was also called into question, as the co-defendants fought interpretations of words such as “ice cube” and “rock” to refer to narcotics.
Drug seizures in 2014
Marijuana still makes up the vast majority of drugs seized in the El Centro Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, in part due to the large quantities required to make a profit. Methamphetamine is a distant second in quantity, due to the small amounts normally transported at once, but it has become one of the more popular substances for which smugglers are apprehended. Cocaine and heroin make up a similar proportion of drugs seized, meeting in the middle as smuggled cocaine falls while heroin rises to take its place. Other drugs such as doses of LSD and prescription pills that are being smuggled are rarely seized in large quantities and are generally not being brought across for widespread sales.
After several motions were struck down, the trio changed their pleas to guilty. They now await sentencing in federal court.
“Today the Imperial Valley law enforcement community has taken down a widespread narcotics distribution ring that supplied the vast majority of the meth and heroin on the streets in El Centro, Brawley and Calipatria,” said Joe Garcia, interim special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego, at the time of the indictment.
“While the impact on public safety in these communities will be far-reaching for the law-abiding residents, our united force sends a bold message that criminals involved in smuggling drugs and weapons and gang activity should fear.”
Focusing on the complete eradication of a smuggling organization is worth the operation and legal requirements to the new Border Patrol.
Working to seize evidence such as a cell phone or GPS device left behind in a car abandoned during a traffic stop can be one of the most effective ways to use the smugglers’ technological savvy against them. Instead of simply seizing illicit materials, agents in the 21st century focus on developing intelligence on the people that bring them to the border.
Traffickers who abandon their vehicles and make a run for it when ushered into secondary inspection by Border Patrol agents used to be a bane of the border. Now, this last-ditch effort to avoid apprehension leaves agents with clues such as cell phones that when traced can lead to much bigger busts, Whitford said.
Fisher uses the imagery of a conveyor belt in his 2014 report. Border Patrol can simply train agents to remove boxes as they come down a revolving belt or they can work on shutting down the mechanism that turns the belt — the smuggling organizations themselves.
“The (drug) seizures cut down on the traffickers’ life blood, because any seizure that we make, whether it’s five pounds or five tons, keeps the money from getting back into the hands of the trafficking organizations,” Esparza said. “That’s the best way to strike a blow against them, to keep their money from getting to them.”
Smuggling pricier, more dangerous contraband brings with it a greater reward, but also a greater risk. Heroin and marijuana are both classified as Schedule I drugs by the DEA, but someone trafficking 100 grams of heroin can face the same five years in federal prison that someone trafficking 500 times that amount of marijuana can.
The temptation of higher profit margins is overwhelming, but traffickers are more determined than ever to not get caught. So they get creative.
“Some of the drug trafficking organizations are getting desperate and increasing their amount of engineering and the depth of engineering,” Calexico Ports of Entry spokesman Nolan Stickles said. “As the desperation level rises, so do the ingenious, if you want to call it that, things they do.”
Any Border Patrol agent with a modicum of field experience has a collection of strange smuggling stories, whether it be finding liquid methamphetamine hidden in the windshield wiper fluid reservoir of a car, heroin hidden in a fake dashboard or cocaine concealed in truck tires.
Some smugglers even remove legitimate parts of their vehicles and replace the mass with narcotics in an attempt to fool the density detectors vehicles are required to drive over in the checkpoint area.
Recently, Stickles said, they’ve been seeing an increase in pedestrians, mostly teenagers, taping small packages of narcotics to their torso or upper thighs. Nailing down the profile of a drug smuggler is impossible, however, he said. In his time at the border, he’s seen children, doctors and 80-year-old women who have all come to work as traffickers for one reason or another.
“You never know who will fall prey to the drug trade,” he said.
In early June, agents at the Highway 86 checkpoint confiscated more than a pound of heroin that had been wrapped in tape and stuffed in a 26-year-old U.S. citizen’s shoes — a haul worth more than $15,600.
With more than 17,000 cars and 13,000 pedestrians passing through the ports of entry and Highway 86 checkpoints every day, it’s impossible to thoroughly inspect each person without completely shutting down the border, Stickles said, so it becomes necessary to rely not only on the intuition of the officers but some of the most complex but lowest-tech tools they have at their disposal — drug-sniffing dogs.
“Ultimately our dogs’ noses and our agents are our best assets,” Esparza said.
Down the line
Fighting back against trafficking organizations is all about denying them profit, Esparza said, as they aren’t tied to a particular criminal method of making money. Cracking down in one location or on one drug is like squeezing a partially-deflated balloon — the air isn’t removed, merely displaced.
This theory, widely dubbed “the balloon effect,” states that even if every illicit material was confiscated as it crossed the border, smuggling organizations would persist through other illegal enterprises such as human trafficking.
According to Fisher’s report, when the San Diego Sector was able to reduce the transportation of illegal goods by 75 percent in 1994, the criminal enterprise operating there quickly changed location and began working in the desert regions of Arizona. Soon, in the small Mexican town of Altar, more than 60 buses full of undocumented immigrants crossed daily.
In its 2014 fiscal report, Border Patrol estimated that it had spent an extra $3.5 billion to secure the border but that only 3 percent of the border had been truly secured. With that logic, an additional $112 billion would be needed to theoretically bring the entire border under control.
Creating a border that would be impenetrable to illicit substances is impossible, Whitford acknowledged, but said his mission is to secure it as well as humanly possible and prevent the rampant violence that has crept into other border towns from entering the El Centro Sector.
“Our goal for the checkpoints is to be a retention point for anything from drugs to immigration,” Esparza added. “So you try to catch everything you can. Realistically, you can’t catch everything, but you have to be as vigilant as possible and catch everything you can.”
If everything goes as planned in the next few months, one of Calexico’s ports of entry will get a huge boost in its enforcement capabilities.
Bids with the U.S. General Services Administration are still pending, Stickles said, but by August or September, he expects plans to be confirmed to demolish the building that was established in 1974, and build one with six more traffic lanes in addition to a new pedestrian processing facility.
The current facility is too small and cramped for agents to operate and inspect the vehicles and people for drugs and other contraband in the way they should without keeping legitimate travelers waiting for hours, Whitford said.
Working to facilitate legitimate trade in such a large North American Free Trade Agreement corridor while preventing harmful and highly addictive drugs from also making their way into the country is a multifaceted challenge, he added. It’s one that might never strike the right balance, but that can’t be given up.
“It’s a balancing act,” Whitford said. “We’re looking for a needle in a haystack out there. We realize that 99 percent of the people who are crossing the border are legitimate law-abiding people, but it’s that needle in a haystack, that one percent that we’re out there searching for day in and day out.”