More than $140-billion worth of two-way trade flows through the Los Angeles and Long Beach seaports and LAX in a single year. John H. Heinrich, district director for the U.S. Customs Service, heads the department responsible for documenting and approving it all.
"Typically, the reaction you get when you say you work for customs is someone's story about coming through the airport," he says.
Like the recent case of the tourist who swallowed a condom filled with heroin. It leaked, says Heinrich, causing the man to go into convulsions. "He turned around and sued us for false search, which he lost."
Less titillating but just as big a concern is the illegal entry of textiles and apparel. "Our main responsibility is to enforce trade agreements between the U.S. and foreign countries as well as check quotas and visa restrictions."
Quotas are limitations on certain garments, such as cotton T-shirts and silk blouses, or on raw materials, imposed by the government to protect U.S. interests.
Cheats are easily caught, he says, either through faulty documentation or through paid informants, locally and abroad. Suppose no one squeals? "Suspect merchandise can easily be examined under a microscope to determine its original point of origin," Heinrich says.