March 31, 2009 / 1:13 AM / 11 years ago

U.S. called ill equipped for Mexico border crackdown

TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - U.S. authorities at Arizona’s six ports of entry along the Mexican border are ill equipped to screen vehicles and trains crossing into Mexico for smuggled weapons and cash, a U.S. official said on Monday.

A U.S. Border Patrol truck patrols at the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas January 25, 2008. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

The Obama administration last week announced plans to crack down on the smuggling of guns and money pouring south from the United States into Mexico that are helping to fuel violence by Mexican drug cartels.

The administration said it will intensify inspections of southbound traffic, with every rail shipment to Mexico due to be inspected, mobile X-ray units to inspect cars, and advanced license-plate readers to identify known smugglers.

But David Higgerson, director of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency’s field operations in Arizona, said the state’s ports of entry were built to screen traffic heading north from Mexico.

“The obvious problem is and always has been (that) the ports were never built to check stuff going south. It was always considered to be not really our problem,” Higgerson said in an interview.

“Well, it is our problem obviously with the cartels and all the other stuff that’s going on,” Higgerson added.

Department of Homeland Security officials say they are confident the announced measures and other steps will do the job. “We are mobilizing technologies and personnel to assist with the southbound inspections,” spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will have a chance to see the border facilities in a trip to the U.S. Southwest this week, Kudwa said.

MAJOR SMUGGLING CORRIDOR

The desert state of Arizona is a major corridor for northbound smuggling of drugs and migrants and southbound trafficking in illegal firearms and bulk cash from drug sales.

The drug gangs are blamed for the deaths of more than 7,000 people in Mexico since the beginning of 2008.

Higgerson’s agency is charged with monitoring traffic and pedestrians crossing through the six ports of entry on the Arizona-Mexico border as well as international airports in Phoenix and Tucson. He said current southbound inspections were limited to intermittent “pulse and surge” operations.

These ports of entry have no facilities to adequately screen border crossers, cargo traffic or freight trains bound for Mexico, Higgerson added.

“What about cargo? We don’t have facilities to check cargo going into Mexico. If you’re going to smuggle guns, are you going to smuggle them in a car or in a truck? Again we have nothing in our southbound to check cargo,” he said.

“Same with trains ... going south, if we see an anomaly, all we can do is tell Mexican customs, because two seconds later it’s in Mexico. They were never designed for going south, the ports were never designed to do it.”

The U.S. government has promised $200 million in additional spending to target the southbound gun and cash smuggling in a bid to curb Mexican drug cartel violence. The United States has pledged to add more than 500 federal agents to border posts and the Mexican interior and boost infrastructure.

Separately, the U.S. economic stimulus package signed into law in February included $720 million for “renovation and construction” of U.S. ports of entry, but Kudwa said she could not yet identify specific projects that would be funded.

Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham

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