SAN DIEGO — The amount of cocaine seized at the commercial ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border plummeted 84% in 1997, forcing U.S. Customs Service officials to develop a new drug-fighting strategy and leaving them concerned about a backlash in Congress.
Bill Heffelsinger, assistant to acting customs Commissioner Samuel H. Banks, said Tuesday that inspectors working at the high-risk commercial ports on the Southwest border confiscated 2,383 pounds of cocaine last year, compared to 15,114 pounds in 1996.
Nationwide, the quantity of cocaine seized by the agency dropped 15% last year to 159,475 pounds, compared to 187,947 pounds in 1996, Heffelsinger added. The total number of seizures by customs agents and inspectors of all kinds of drugs was a record 26,240 nationwide last year, authorities said.
Acting Commissioner Banks, in an interview Tuesday, said the drop in cocaine seizures is worrisome. "You look at those numbers and you want to be your own worst critic," Banks said. "You're going to be asked questions on [Capitol] Hill, and we have to provide answers [for how to stop the flow of drugs]."
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) said Tuesday he was disappointed by customs' failure to seize more cocaine at the commercial ports.
"Congress has directed almost every possible resource toward drug interdiction efforts, including more agents, better technology and several hundred million dollars in additional funding," said Packard. "These are not the results we expected. If interdiction is down, the American people deserve some answers."
Customs officials hope to find answers through Operation Brass Ring, a new nationwide drug interdiction strategy launched by the agency this week. Officials said the operation is part of a broader five-year program by the Office of National Drug Control Policy to reduce by 50% the amount of illegal drugs entering the country.
Memos obtained by The Times show that the new strategy comes at a time of concern among customs union officials over possible political repercussions resulting from the drop in the amount of cocaine caught at the commercial ports.
A Nov. 28, 1997, National Treasury Employees Union memo noted that Congress had authorized $64 million in funding in 1997 for 657 new enforcement positions along the Southwest border as part of Operation Hard Line, the drug interdiction plan in effect at the time.
Hard Line was launched in 1995 after The Times reported that there had been virtually no cocaine seizures at the biggest commercial ports on the U.S.-Mexico border, where thousands of trucks cross daily.
The union memo predicted that "no doubt Congress will be highly upset with these  figures . . . border drug interdiction is becoming a major political issue in Washington."
Another union memo on Dec. 22 said new "enforcement operations" were needed and urged inspectors to be flexible and imaginative in their approach to drug interdiction.
"The objective being to increase our seizures so customs and [the union] don't get their heads handed to them by the politicians in Washington when the budget meetings start in March," the memo said.
Robert Tobias, president of the employees union, said he would not apologize for the blunt talk in the memos.
"This was me doing my job as president to inform [members] what the stakes are," said Tobias. "There's nothing wrong with telling people that if you don't get off your duff you're in danger of losing your job. Brass Ring is a wake-up call to all of us involved in fighting drugs."
On Tuesday, Banks said he was pleased that the president's proposed customs operating budget for 1999, publicly announced Tuesday, was $1.8 billion, up from $1.7 billion in 1998. That budget must still be approved by Congress.
Banks said he was willing to publicly admit some of the agency's enforcement problems "so we can get the issue out there, even if it's critical to us."
"I'm willing to take it on the chin if necessary to get the message out, so we can focus on the drug problem," Banks said.
Banks said Brass Ring will "dramatically increase drug seizures" at the 24 ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border.
A Nov. 28, 1997, report by the union said that "intelligence sources are reporting that 5 to 7 tons of illegal drugs are being smuggled from Mexico to the U.S. every day."
In the interview Tuesday, Banks said he does not dispute the union's figures.
Concern over the declining cocaine interdiction figures arose in September, when Banks reported in a memo to customs employees that he had met with Gen. Barry McCaffrey, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The Sept. 18, 1997, memo said that "we were asked some tough questions about the effectiveness of our various operations, and we did not always have convincing answers."
Heffelsinger said the biggest problem in customs' interdiction plan had been its predictability.