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Federal lawsuits target Union Pacific over cross-border drug smuggling

Marijuana or cocaine was found in rail cars at least 38 times between 2001 and 2006, authorities claim. The rail company says it has little control over operations by its corporate partner in Mexico.

March 19, 2009|Richard Marosi

SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Department of Justice filed lawsuits against Union Pacific Railroad Co. on Wednesday seeking $37 million in damages for allegedly failing to prevent its rail cars from being used to smuggle drugs into the country.

U.S. customs inspectors on at least 38 occasions between 2001 and 2006 discovered marijuana or cocaine in Union Pacific rail cars at border crossings at Brownsville, Texas, and Calexico, Calif., according to the two complaints filed Wednesday.

Federal authorities say the Omaha-based company violated laws requiring transportation operators to submit accurate descriptions of their cargo to customs inspectors. The lawsuit was filed after Union Pacific refused to pay several penalties, saying it has limited ability to control train operations by its corporate partner in Mexico.

"We're being punished for drug smuggling from Mexico that we have no ability to prevent," said Donna Kush, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific, North America's largest railroad company.

The federal government said its inspectors found more than two tons of marijuana and more than 100 kilograms of cocaine on company rail cars, many of which were listed as empty on manifests, the complaint alleges.

Seizures included 61 kilograms of marijuana found in the spine of a rail car, 29 kilograms of marijuana discovered in a hidden compartment of a flat-bed car and 117 kilograms of cocaine in a false wall of a rail car at the border crossing in Brownsville.

"Securing the nation's rail system against the threat of cross-border smuggling requires the compliance and cooperation of the rail industry, Jayson P. Ahern, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in a statement.

The Department of Homeland Security has told the company that it should hire an outside security company or work with its business partner, Ferrocarril Mexicano, of which it is a part owner.

The spokeswoman for Union Pacific, which has its own police force in the U.S., said that setting up a security team in Mexico would be unrealistic and potentially dangerous.

"We wouldn't be allowed to carry arms or use K-9 teams. . . . We'd be unarmed in the face of vicious drug gangs," Kush said.

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richard.marosi@latimes.com

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