Nearly 300 California National Guard members this weekend will begin helping U.S. Customs Service inspectors at the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego search for narcotics being smuggled into the country on foreign ships, guard officials announced Thursday.
The soldiers will assist customs inspectors in searching containers and other cargo, but they will not be armed and will not have authority to make arrests. The program is scheduled to last four weeks and will be financed by a $1-million federal grant, part of $40 million allocated by Congress for drug interdiction by state national guards.
Busiest in U.S.
California National Guard Maj. Steve Mensik said during a press conference at the Armed Forces Reserve Center at Los Alamitos that an estimated 30% of all illegal drugs smuggled into the country arrive in containerized cargo. The adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are two of the largest on the West Coast. Combined, they are the busiest in the nation.
Guard members from throughout the state who volunteer for the anti-drug program, Mensik said, will be given a 4-hour course on how to spot illegal drugs. The duty will last for two weeks and soldiers will come from as far north as Mt. Shasta and as far south as San Diego. All will receive their training at the National Guard facilities at Los Alamitos.
"Any discoveries of illegal drugs will be reported to customs officials who will decide on the appropriate action to take," Mensik said. "We will be supporting customs only."
Although there is virtually no chance that the guard members would come in contact with smugglers or drug dealers in this program, Mensik said, he still described the guard role as "low-intensity combat." But he said the program will be confined to the seaports and no guard member will cross the border into Mexico or ride in helicopters patrolling the border.
Mensik said no particular country or its ships have been targeted for search.
"Drugs come in from all countries, Europe and South America," he said, adding that the program will last four weeks because that would cover ships that were already at sea and bound for the United States before the program was announced.
The cargo inspection program is not the first time the guard has been involved in drug interdiction, Mensik said. As far back as 1983 the guard supplied helicopters and crews to the state in its search for marijuana fields in Northern California.
More recently, guard helicopters and crews were used by law enforcement authorities in a long-term surveillance operation in Southern California.