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A smuggler’s greeting . . .

A personal message from a smuggler . . .

I began my career with U.S. Customs as a trainee—GS-7—at the port of Progreso, Texas and was upgraded to the journeyman position—GS-9—after one year. During that year I learned more from one officer at the port than from all the others combined. Not that they didn’t help me learn the ins and outs of the job—they were very helpful, but the port director and I became a team, both professionally and personally. I felt that our relationship was that of brothers, each of us looking out for the other’s back.

Some ten years older than I, he took me under his wing in the way a mother hen hovers over her chick—figuratively, of course. He placed me on the right path for success in my new profession and set me straight when I strayed from that path. He raised hell when I made mistakes, and he lauded me when I managed to do something right, such as making seizures and accurately documenting our various Customs activities.

He had been recently promoted and became the port director at Progreso when it became a port separate from the larger port of Hidalgo near McAllen, Texas. His name was Paul, and he died at Christmas time in 1973, just two years after I met him. His cancer disease was diagnosed in mid-1972 and a scant eighteen months later he was dead. He was buried in Brownsville, Texas. Click here for a posting of the relationship I enjoyed with the port director—my boss, my mentor and my friend.

Sundays at the port were overtime days, and the port director shared in the overtime pay and the workload created by increased public traffic on Sundays—commercial activities were suspended. Early one Sunday morning the port director called me to the secondary area and told me to check out the driver of a Ford station wagon that had been referred for secondary inspection, with particular emphasis on the white T-shirt the driver was wearing. The Ford Country Squire station wagon one of many made over a period of some forty years—this one was from the late 1960s.

The driver was a Mexican national with a tarjeta, a local border crossing card, an official Immigration document that authorized him to enter the U.S. with certain restrictions—he must stay within 25 miles of the international border and return to Mexico within three days. On the surface the driver seemed calm, but he was wearing a white T-shirt stretched tightly across his chest, and with each beat of his heart the area over his pectus excavatum—the depression in one’s chest—fluttered. He was probably thinking, be still, dear heart! Yes, I learned the term for a sunken chest from Wikipedia—three cheers for Wikipedia and the Internet!

I escorted him to the Customhouse and asked another officer to detain him in case he decided to return to Mexico—to make a run for the border, so to speak. I felt reasonably certain that he had something to hide in that station wagon, and in fact he did.

From Wikipedia: The Ford Country Squire was a full-size station wagon built by the Ford Motor Company from 1950 until 1991; it was based on the Ford full-size car line available in each year. The Country Squire was the premium station wagon in the Ford range, and always featured imitation-wood trim on the doors and tailgate. As a full-size wagon, it could carry up to 9 passengers with the unique side-facing seats.

The station wagon exuded a strong smell of glue when I opened the rear swinging door, and the cargo area appeared to be freshly carpeted. A cursory examination showed that the carpeting was glued down, restricting access to the storage area beneath. I removed the carpet and opened the area. The vinyl-covered cushioned seats and back rests had been removed from the steel panels and the storage area was neatly filled with marijuana compressed into blocks—smugglers used commercial trash compacters to process the weed, then wrapped it in foil and plastic hoping to conceal the odor of drying marijuana from detector dogs and inspectors.

One can always find humor in a situation if one looks hard enough and long enough—I didn’t have to look very long, and I started laughing when I raised the seat panels. Atop the load of marijuana was a large piece of cardboard with a phrase in Spanish written with a felt-tip marker. This was the printed phrase:

Chinga tu madre, Mike!

The tu madre means your mother, and the Mike is my middle name. Chinga is the imperative form of the Spanish verb chingar, a crude form of a verb meaning to have sexual intercourse with, a term extensively used in Mexico and particularly along la frontera—the border. It has many meanings, but in this case it was directed to a person named Mike, telling him to do the dirty with his mother.

I had no doubt then, and no doubt exists now, as to the author of the message. Unknown to anyone at the time, an employee of a local Customs broker was moving contraband across the border, and in due time would be caught, arrested, charged and convicted and would serve time in a Texas prison. His arrest and subsequent incarceration will be covered in a future posting.

Although I was the new kid on the block, I had compiled an unusual series of arrests and seizures—I say that in all modesty, but I have the letters of commendation and the in-grade pay raises to prove it. I have no doubt that the broker employee set up the illegal importation of a prohibited substance and left the message in case I intercepted the load.

I wanted to keep the cardboard message as a souvenir, but it was kept with the seizure and was destroyed with the other marijuana. As the junior member of our inspectional force at the port of Progreso, I was privileged—well, not exactly privileged—I was ordered to destroy marijuana seizures by open-air burning when the case was closed. That task is the subject for a future posting. In that posting I will either confirm or refute that smelling the smoke from burning marijuana—other than from a pipe or a hookah or a joint—will give one a high.

Stay tuned!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
 

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425 pounds of marijuana—my first seizure . . .



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!

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2010 in bridge, bridges, camping, drivers, law enforcement

 

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