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Drug Seizures Up at State Borders

Contraband: Haul of cocaine and heroin rises dramatically in the last three months of 2001. Increased anti-terror efforts are credited.

January 31, 2002|WILLIAM OVEREND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cocaine and heroin seizures along California's coast and on the border with Mexico have increased dramatically in recent months--a sign to officials that the nation's war on terror may be benefiting the war on drugs.

Figures from October through December show 2,650 pounds of cocaine seized by U.S. Customs Service agents on the Mexican border. That was more than twice the 1,132 pounds seized during the same period the previous year.

An even larger increase was seen in heroin seizures at the state's border crossing stations. Customs officers seized 197.5 pounds of heroin during the three-month period, more than 20 times the 9.1 pounds for October-December of 2000.

Officials said seizures by customs agents at ports and international airports from San Francisco and Oakland to Los Angeles also rose significantly. In the Bay Area, heroin confiscations more than doubled and cocaine busts were more than 15 times higher than the same period in 2000.

Though officials were cautious about interpreting too much from three months of statistics, they said the numbers confirm a pattern that first emerged in late November.

The increases in drug seizures are related to anti-terrorism operations along the border and at major ports and airports since Sept. 11, they said.

"Three months only gives us a snapshot of what may be going on, but there is obviously a substantial impact from Sept. 11," said Jayson Ahern, director of field operations for the Customs Service in San Diego. "The seizures reflect the heightened state of alert at the border since then."

Immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, customs officers went on full alert, searching every car crossing the border. During that time, officials say, drug seizures actually dropped to almost nothing as smugglers delayed their usual shipments.

Customs agents remain on full terrorist alert, but have modified search practices slightly. Agents are generally much more aggressive in questioning border crossers, but smugglers may now believe there is at least some chance of getting drugs into the country, officials say.

"We are searching more cars and searching more people," Ahern said. "We are also doing much more intense inspections, taking more time to focus on people and their documents. One of the results has been that we are finding more drugs."

The increased seizures in California have been matched by similar increases at ports of entry throughout the nation, customs officials said.

"Heightened security against terrorism has clearly benefited our overall efforts to defend our nation from drug smugglers," said Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, who will tour customs facilities in San Diego today.

Nationwide heroin seizures were up 135% in the last three months of 2001 compared with the previous year, said officials in Washington. Cocaine seizures by customs nationally increased from 45,665 to 71,209 pounds. And marijuana seizures from October to December showed a 19% increase.

Mike Fleming, a customs spokesman for the region extending from Orange County to the northern tip of California, said the increased seizures reflect more aggressive searches at major seaports and airports as well as along the border.

"Our highest priority is anti-terrorism, and we have been on full-alert status now for several months," he said. "Agents are working more hours and they are conducting more examinations. The more you look, the more you find."

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