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War on Drugs Goes to New Wavelengths : Narcotics: Customs inspectors use costly machine to X-ray suspect vehicles at Mexican border. But its success has been limited.

October 18, 1995|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OTAY MESA, Calif. — It's a typical Friday afternoon at the front line of America's war on drugs: Scores of trucks groan as they idle in a queue that starts in Mexico and creeps toward the most modern border crossing in the southern United States.

As they edge onto U.S. soil, the truckers encounter overworked teams of customs inspectors armed with sniffer dogs, radioactive sensors, laser-guided range finders and a honed intuition. The inspectors randomly swarm over appliance trucks, produce vans, gas tankers and flatbeds piled with flattened junk cars.

At first suspicion, trucks are sent to the far end of the Otay Mesa Cargo Facility, where an average of 1,900 trailers and vans enter daily. Here, Gary Truitt and Jim Brown, two senior customs inspectors, manipulate a console of joysticks, video terminals and computer imagery in an air-conditioned van beside the latest, costly weapon in the United States' counter-narcotics arsenal: the backscatter X-ray scanner, or, as it is commercially known, Cargosearch.

It takes just 10 minutes for a suspect vehicle to move through Cargosearch with its thousands of flying X-ray spots inside a metal building resembling an automatic car wash. Truitt--who is the resident expert on the system--is among the believers in the benefits of the device, calling it "an outstanding machine--it's non-intrusive and it's fast."

There's just one problem: In the first year of operation of the equipment, designed to speed the inspection process, the $3.2-million prototype did not detect one gram of the tons of cocaine and heroin that flooded into the United States from Mexico through key smuggling routes such as this one.

In its trial year, which ended last month, the system did find a few tons of hidden marijuana. And it proved that it can "see" inside a truck--even inside the vehicle's walls, frame and gas tank--but not inside much of its cargo.

As a result, customs inspectors at Otay Mesa say they must still inspect an array of shipments--from pineapples to scrap iron--in the painstaking old-fashioned way: by hand. In the meantime, the X-ray machine's software and hardware have broken down several times during its trial, rendering it idle for hours--and sometimes almost a week--at a time.

While skeptics question whether Cargosearch's benefits match its big price tag, the Customs Service's experiment with the device, proponents and opponents agree, has illustrated the frustrations, shortfalls and qualified successes of the United States' $100-million push to perfect "non-intrusive inspection technology," a critical part of the high-tech war on the multibillion-dollar drug smuggling trade.

Customs Service Commissioner George Weise said in a recent interview that Cargosearch, one of several systems for which Congress allocated $500,000 earlier this year for a cost-effectiveness study, "is not a panacea."

But he said he has heeded his inspectors and agrees with them that the device is an effective, efficient drug-smuggling deterrent. Customs plans to buy as many as a dozen Cargosearch machines to build a network of X-ray sentries along the Mexican border with California, Arizona and Texas. Total cost: more than $30 million.

Weise said he knows the devices are both pricey and imperfect: "It's a prototype. It's the first time we've tried it. Certainly there are growing pains with it."

But he said the manufacturer is upgrading the prototype and improving the next generation of Cargosearch machines, which he called "an important tool to have in our arsenal."

That Weise would use such language is notable, because when it comes to the fight against drugs, officials say they are engaged in nothing less than a war. Mexico's wily, powerful cartels have stymied U.S. enforcement efforts by employing sophisticated, ever-changing tactics--and strategic payoffs. The result has been that more than $7 billion in cocaine gets smuggled into the United States each year, the Drug Enforcement Administration estimates.

As for the cash-strapped Customs Service, it has been forced to rely almost entirely on the Pentagon in recent years for its high-tech anti-smuggling weapons.

*

Cargosearch is just one of many devices that sprang from Defense Department research and development. Collaborating with corporations and the Customs Service, Pentagon scientists and engineers in the Advanced Research Products Agency have built on technology developed in the 1980s to help verify the reduction of Soviet nuclear weapons, in which U.S. inspectors used a high-tech tool that let them see inside Soviet trucks carrying missiles, averting more difficult, time-consuming searches.

But these first-generation "flying spot" X-ray machines lacked the capacity to see inside the missiles themselves. The challenge for authorities, one Pentagon analyst said, was to upgrade the device so it could do just that, meaning it could be used in the drug war, examining not only inside walls and frames of smugglers' trucks but also inside cargoes.

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