My first seizure—425 pounds of marijuana . . .
I made my first significant seizure early in my first year as a Customs inspector working on the international border between Texas and Mexico. The port was Progreso, Texas, the day was Saturday, the month was February and the year was 1972. The marijuana was in a pickup truck driven by a Mexican national with a tarjeta, a local border crossing card, an official Immigration document that allowed him to enter the US and travel no more than 25 miles from the border and remain in the U.S. for no more than three days.
To my question as to citizenship, he replied Mexican and displayed the tarjeta. To my question of what, if anything, he was bringing to the US he replied Nada—nothing. There was nothing visible in the front seat or floorboard and a quick glance into the bed of the truck through a side window of the camper showed nothing. And to my question of the purpose of his trip, he said a comprar cosas—to buy things—in other words, to go shopping.
I stopped asking questions and told him to park the truck and lift the hood for me. Not that I expected to find anything under the hood—I expected to find something in the roof of the camper. My quick look into the rear should have shown me metal, but I noticed that the roof of the camper was paneled, indicating possibly that the ceiling was fitted with insulation. I needed to see what kind of insulation had been installed, so the order to park and lift the hood was an attempt to allay any suspicion he might have concerning his referral for a secondary inspection.
He was driving a late model Ford pickup truck with a camper shell installed. The truck had a manual gearshift, and while he talked he kept the truck in gear and the clutch depressed with his left foot. On the surface he seemed calm and at ease, but the clutch on that Ford was apparently very stiff—he was having a hard time keeping the clutch down and disengaged, so hard that his leg was shaking from the effort and I could hear coins jingling in his pocket, and the rest is history.
He parked the truck, killed the engine, stepped out and raised the hood. A brief glance and my suspicions were confirmed—nothing there. I took the driver by the arm and told him we needed to talk inside. He went with me without protest, and I turned him over to the inspectors inside and told them that I believed he was loaded.
Subsequent inspection of the camper’s roof revealed 425 pounds of marijuana in small plastic–wrapped packages. The camper’s roof was fitted with 2x4s on edge along its length, with stiffening blocks running from side to side. The packages were placed in the spaces provided and the paneling added by screwing it to the 2x4s. This was the first of many that would be intercepted following dissemination of the method of concealment Service-wide, but seizures dropped when the smugglers learned of our findings and went to other methods.
I am convinced, and I am honest enough to admit it, that had I not heard the coins jingling in the driver’s pocket I probably would have released him without any inspection beyond the primary questions.
I learned a lot about making enforcement that day, the day of my first significant seizure. I learned that the smallest, most seemingly unimportant action of a person could be very important, and I learned that just because someone is a fellow inspector it doesn’t mean he can be trusted.
One of my fellow inspectors, an old-time Border Patrol officer that transferred to the more leisurely life of an inspector, obligingly helped me open the ceiling of the camper and extract, count and weigh its contents.
When the time came to document the enforcement action, I was ordered to share the action with the old fart—I can call him that without fear of repercussions—he is long retired and long dead. The port director apologized for the order, explaining that was how the system worked and he had no choice. Had I told the other inspector to keep his hands and his distance away from my seizure, I would have not been required to share it.
The result was that he shared equally in the citations that the Service provided in recognition of our enforcement efforts. He knew full well what he was doing and why, and capitalized on my ignorance of seizure procedures. Another factor was that Customs wants as few inspectors involved in individual seizures as possible—should such cases go to court, the fewer inspectors involved in the seizure the better, because of the drain on personnel resources on court days.
I made many more mistakes in my 26-year career in federal enforcement, but this was the first and the only mistake I made of this nature. We live and learn by our mistakes, so I always make a determined effort to not repeat any mistake I’ve made.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!