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Hide and seek on the US-Mexico line

Robert Hood of US Customs and Border Protection stood on the US-Mexico border facing 25 lanes of idling cars that were waiting to enter the United States. Any one of the drivers, he knew well, could be smuggling cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine or undocumented migrants.

美国海关及边境保卫局的罗伯特•胡德(Robert Hood)站在美墨边境,面对着 25 个匝道上缓缓行驶准备进入美国的汽车长龙。他深知,任何一个司机都可能走私可卡因、海洛因、脱氧麻黄碱或者其本人是非法移民。

Hood’s eyes darted left and right. He glanced at a silver Hyundai, then at a blue Honda.


I tried to follow his eyes, to see what he was seeing. But where I saw only a sea of vehicles and their seemingly bored drivers, Hood spotted something more — something suspicious.


“I see a couple of cars I want to check,” he said.


Located about 15 miles south of San Diego, California, and abutting the Mexican city of Tijuana, the San Ysidro Port of Entry is the busiest land border crossing on Earth. Every day at this checkpoint and another several miles away at Otay Mesa, more than 100,000 people cross between Mexico and the US — people going to work or school, visiting relatives, or embarking on holidays. The volume is staggering.

加州圣伊西德罗(San Ysidro)入境口岸位于圣迭戈以南 15 英里处,毗连墨西哥城市提华纳(Tijuana),是世界上最为繁忙的陆上过境口岸。每天,在这个检查站和另一个几英里外的奥泰梅沙(Otay Mesa)检查站,都有 100,000 多人穿过美国和墨西哥边境,他们有的工作,有的上学,有的探亲,还有的度假。人数多得惊人。

I had come here on a recent morning to see up-close the massive task facing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials. I’d read the wild stories about inventive smugglers who crammed methamphetamine into gas tanks and cocaine into cars’ side panels. I wanted to learn how agents suss out suspicious drivers from the millions of law-abiding citizens who are crossing at the same time.


Of course, this isn’t the kind of place where you can casually drop in. Even before they agreed to show me around, CBP officials conducted a background check to ensure I wasn’t a threat. Then before my visit, a long list of do’s and don’ts arrived aimed at maintaining security and privacy. (Example: “For reasons of officer safety, no names or recognizable photos or video will be allowed of any CBP officer until his/her permission is granted.”)

当然,这里不是随便就能去的地方。即使事先同意带我四处看看,CBP 探员们也要先进行背景调查,确定我不是危险分子。在到访前,我就收到一份长长的注意事项清单,目的是确保安全和隐私。(例如:“为保证探员安全,在得到允许前,不得拍摄能辨认探员姓名的照片或视频。”)

As I drove south on the interstate, I saw Tijuana spread out before me, the city’s crush of houses and shops pressed up against the border. On the US side, the development is sparser. The small community of San Ysidro sits next to the crossing. Beyond that, to the east and west, are mostly barren hills and ranches — a kind of no man’s land that’s primarily the domain of Border Patrol agents and farmers.


A freeway sign warns, “Last USA Exit.” I pulled off, parked in a border lot and strolled toward the crossing. There was a buzz — at times, uneasy — to the place. Travellers clutching suitcases and duffel bags were changing money and hurrying across the street. Taxis and buses waited. Security was ever-present: Several police officers were handcuffing a man loitering near the sidewalk.


As soon as I arrived at the crossing, I could see why agents were so cautious about visitors. Public affairs officer Angelica De Cima told me that they had just seized 3 kilograms of cocaine, and that further seizures and arrests could ensue. In fact, agents in San Ysidro make an average of six narcotics busts a day.

抵达边境口岸后,我立即就明白了探员对游客保持戒备的原因。公共事务主任安赫莉卡•迪西马(Angelica De Cima)告诉我,他们刚刚缴获 3 公斤卡洛因,接踵而来的是逮捕工作。实际上,圣伊西德罗平均每天会缴获 6 批麻醉毒品。

She led me to an inspection area where a bag of cocaine — US street value: $80,000 — sat atop a cart. Beside the bag was the hollowed-out fire extinguisher where the drug had been stashed in the backseat of a pickup. That morning, before the vehicle even reached an inspection booth, a specially trained dog had sniffed out something suspicious.

她带着我来到检验区,一辆推车上有一袋可卡因,它在美国街头的贩卖价格是:80,000 美元。袋子旁是一个中间掏空的灭火器,毒品就曾藏在其中,它是在一辆皮卡后座上被发现的。这天早晨,甚至在皮卡到达检查站前,就有一只受过专门训练的缉毒犬发现了异样。

“If the canine alerts, the officers will talk to the person, get an interview, and probably remove him in handcuffs”, Hood said. “You don’t want that person to drive the vehicle in. It becomes dangerous for everybody.”


Soon after agents took control of the pickup, an officer tested the fire extinguisher to see if it worked — only days earlier, agents had made another bust involving an extinguisher. “Some of the product came out”, Hood said, “but then it stopped.”


Not surprisingly, border agents see a dizzying array of smuggling attempts as traffickers try to outsmart inspectors. Officers once found 150 pounds of liquid and crystalised methamphetamine in a pickup truck gas tank. They found 162 vials of Ketamine — an anesthetic often used as a recreational drug — tucked in the sunroof of a Lexus. And they once even discovered methamphetamine hidden in cans of cheese and jalapeños.

难怪,在贩毒者企图瞒天过海时,边境探员却能发现各种让人眼花缭乱的走私行为。探员曾在一辆皮卡的油箱里发现了 150 磅液体和结晶的脱氧麻黄碱。他们还曾在一辆凌志车的天窗里发现 160 瓶克他命,这种麻醉剂往往被用作消遣毒品。他们甚至在乳酪和墨西哥胡椒罐头中查获过脱氧麻黄碱。

“I’ve been here 29 years and I think I’ve seen just about everything,” Hood said.

胡德说,“我在这里工作了 29 年,我想我见识过各种花样。”

We walked out into the lanes of traffic where drivers were waiting to cross into the US. Cars were lined up as far as the eye could see. Street vendors working on the Tijuana side wandered among the vehicles, selling chips, candy and tchotchkes. Drivers gazed out, tapping steering wheels, counting the minutes.


These lanes represent the first opportunity to identify suspicious vehicles. Agents call the zone “pre-primary” and they employ a technique they call “pulse and surge.”


“We’ll saturate the area with a lot of canines and enforcement and then pull back,” Hood said.


While the dogs are busy sniffing, officers walk among the cars, chatting with drivers and scanning vehicles for anything that appears off.


“You talk to people,” Hood said. “You’re looking for that loose thread in their story. Let’s say the person says he’s going to work. What’s your boss’s name? ‘Ed.’ Okay, you got a phone number for Ed? ‘Well I just started there a week ago.’ They’re prepared only up until a point.”


Officers out in the lanes also tap on gas tanks, listening to the tone of the ping to ensure tanks are loaded only with fuel — and use density meters to determine whether tyres or other spaces are crammed with contraband. These techniques pay off: Roughly 40% of all seizures involving vehicles begin in pre-primary.

纽约时报中英文网 www.qqenglish.com

匝道上的探员也会敲击油箱,听听响声,确定油箱里装得是否只有汽油,用密度表测量轮胎或其他空间,判断是否塞有违禁品。这些技巧发挥了作用:在缴获的涉及车辆的违禁品中,约有 40% 都是在预检中发现的。

The next opportunity to catch smugglers is at the 47 inspection booths, where agents examine passports, ask drivers about the purpose of their journeys and observe behavior. If anything seems amiss, drivers are typically sent to the secondary inspection area, where officers conduct more extensive examinations and use more sophisticated technology, including X-ray scanners and fibre-optic scopes.

下一道关口是在 47 个检查站截获走私者。探员们在那里检查护照,询问司机来美国的目的,观察其行为。如果发现任何问题,通常司机就会被带到第二检查区,探员在那里进行深入检查,采用包括 X 射线扫描和光纤探头在内的更为复杂的技术。

“We’re always innovative”, Hood said. “We want new technology. If anybody wants to try anything new for enforcement, they come to us, because if it works here, it’ll work anywhere.”


The approach yields plenty of busts. In fiscal year 2014, agents at ports of entry across California inspected nearly 27m private vehicles and more than a million commercial trucks. In all, they seized more than 76 tonnes of illegal narcotics and arrested more than 33,000 immigration-law violators. While cocaine, heroin and marijuana seizures had dropped from the previous year, methamphetamine busts went up 8%, to nearly 15,000 pounds.

利用这种检查方法查获了大量违禁品。2014 财年,加州入境口岸探员共检查了近 2,700 万辆私家车和超过 100 万辆商用卡车。他们总共截获超过 76 公吨非法麻醉药品,逮捕了 33,000 多名违反移民法入境的人。尽管可卡因、海洛因、大麻截获数量比上年有所减少,截获的脱氧麻黄碱却上升 8%, 达到近 15,000 磅。

Now the assistant port director, Hood no longer spends his days walking the traffic lanes with canines, but as I stood with him among the cars, I got the impression he sometimes wishes he were.


“I worked out here on a roving team for about five years, and this is the most fun job I’ve ever had,” he said. “It was like hunting or fishing, trying to find the bad guys.”


Public affairs officer De Cima smiled. “They said he was better than the dogs.”


Hood grinned. He credited his success with a combination of intuition, training and experience. “You know these cars and travelers,” he said. “You know the stories. You know the smuggling trends. When something isn’t right, you know it.”


Hood remembered a particularly busy couple of years in which he made more than a hundred narcotics busts. “One month in ’97, I got 43 loads with and without a canine,” he said. “I mostly like to count what I got without the canine.”

胡德记得,有几年特别忙碌,他曾截获上百批毒品。他说,“1997 年有一个月我曾在没有缉毒犬的情况下截获 43 起毒品。我最喜欢看看自己在没有缉毒犬情况下能发现什么。”

Hood recalled once talking to a driver who was pulling a fishing boat. He asked if the guy had caught any fish. “Yeah”, the man said. Hood opened his icebox and spotted a couple of dead fish but no ice. There were no hooks on his fishing poles, either.


Sure enough, Hood said, “He had 2,500 pounds of marijuana in the boat.”

胡德说,这已经足以确定了,“他的船里装着 2,500 磅大麻。”

Of course, the agency isn’t perfect. Nobody knows how many smugglers get past agents, or how many migrants successfully sneak into the US.


CBP has more than 44,000 law-enforcement personnel, including Border Patrol agents and CBP officers. That makes CBP bigger than any other law-enforcement agency in the country. Problems are bound to arise, and earlier this year, a law-enforcement task force issued a report critical of CBP, highlighting concerns over corruption and excessive use of force.

包括边境巡逻队和 CBP 探员在内,CBP 共有超过 44,000 名执法人员。这使 CBP 成为美国最大的执法机构。问题必然会产生。今年早些时候,一个执法小组发布了一份谴责 CBP 的报告,重点强调对腐败和过度使用武力的担忧。

De Cima said the agency has already made changes to its use-of-force training and guidelines and is reviewing other recommendations. “US Customs and Border Protection is committed to continually earning the public trust through integrity, accountability and transparency”, she said in a statement.

迪西马表示,CBP 已经对使用武力训练和指导方针做出改革,对其他建议也进行了检讨。她在一份声明中表示,“美国海关及边境保卫局致力于本着廉正、问责和透明的原则继续赢得公众的信任”。

As we watched agents roam among the cars, I told Hood that I imagined the work must be exhausting — spending hours a day under the hot sun, breathing car exhaust, canvassing the area for smugglers.


Hood looked out at the lines of cars.


“At the end of the day, you’re tired”, he said. Then he flashed a mischievous smile. “But you’re always like, is there one more out here?”




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