What is fundamental to all drug traffickers from Mexico is to get drugs moving onto a U.S. highway and into a metropolitan city for distribution. Interstate 35 runs north from Laredo to San Antonio, Texas, a route that is strategic to the legitimate and illegitimate economy. Once across the border the value of drugs climbs as they are moved north. A kilo of uncut cocaine in the U.S. could start at $18,500 a couple of hundred miles from the border but might increase in value to $32,000 further north. Prices vary depending on the amount purchased, the quality and the location.
When I visited a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on I-35, one of the mandatory stops for all northbound vehicles, Border Patrol Agents had just found a white passenger van decorated with Christian symbols, with a small empty flatbed trailer and hollowed out floorboards, filled with 116.6 lbs of marijuana, with an estimated street value of $93,280. By the time I arrive, the driver had already been taken away.
An agent had thought the trailer looked suspicious, a specialized dog sniffed out contraband, holes were drilled into the floorboards and out sprung the marijuana. One by one the floorboards were split open and neatly wrapped gleaming plastic packages of drugs fell to the inspection area floor.
I drive down to the U.S. port of entry where U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers notice that the morning border traffic from Mexico is light and unusually late. Reports are that cartel-related violence in Laredo's sister city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, has interrupted rush hour. No Mexicans want to be identified when we talk. One man says every business and part of the government are influenced by the Zetas, a violent organized crime group. Another man at the border says that the Zetas send Mexicans across the border to buy alcohol in the U.S. to bring back as part of a monopoly the Zetas control on alcohol sales in the region.
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Now increasingly common, U.S. southbound traffic to Mexico is monitored by U.S. Border Patrol and Protection agents and officers, who are focused on intercepting large undeclared sums of money and weapons. As I watch the search of a truck I see an officer walking from a building with two transparent bags of cash believed to be related to drug trafficking that had been seized heading south. It totals approximately $120,000.
For the final part of the day I head over to the rail yard, where train traffic is processed as a major part of the economy. As in every U.S. port of entry, X-ray technology is used for traffic moving both ways. With this technology, officials can catch migrants and drugs coming into the U.S., as well as weapons going south. Mostly all one sees at the rail yard are commercial goods, mainly auto parts moving in both directions as part of the billions of dollars in trade between the U.S. and Mexico.
To the west of Laredo sits the Colombia Bridge port of entry, one of two crucial commercial crossings in the Laredo Sector. This and other crossings in the region are worth billions of dollars in trade to the legal and illegal U.S. and Mexican economy. Within this infrastructure the cartels constantly smuggle drugs northbound while their money and weapons from American-based criminals flow southward.
I visit a lab at the port of entry and am introduced to other complex issues that challenge U.S. Customs Officers. Thousands of insects including the Asian long-horned beetle, weevils and many other critters are captured attempting to piggyback their way into the U.S. They are found in shipments of every kind from flowers and vegetables to wood pallets. Some of the shipments are crated in wood, sometimes from Asia, and if the wood is untreated or the shipment goes unchecked a whole host of creatures, some with the ability to wipe out trees and crops, can be hitching a ride north. One of the officers jokes that they are tasked with catching mostly "drugs, thugs and bugs."
But most customs officers I talk to say that illegal drugs are the biggest challenge and take up the largest part of their resources. Smugglers attempt every possible and imaginative manner of getting drugs through. One load of drugs is hidden inside a cargo of frozen squid. In another load, liquid cocaine is injected into a shipment of watermelons and some of it is dissolved into bottled drinks. Often smugglers try to store and or pack drugs in sophisticated compartments built into vehicles. Contraband is thrown at the border in mass numbers to overwhelm border security so that although many loads get intercepted, many others get through.
Once I finish my reporting here I drive to the airport in San Antonio to return my rental car. The man at the rental counter is from Nuevo Laredo – he has family there. I call my nearby hotel for the shuttle to pick me up and am told it will arrive in 15 minutes. While I wait the man at the counter recounts memories of a time long ago when all the Narcos operated quietly and pretty much left everyone alone. I look at my watch – the shuttle is over 30 minutes late now. I call again and the hotel receptionist says the shuttle will be there soon. The man at the counter continues telling me about how the earlier generation of Narcos would dress well – they were older and respected and they conducted business without bothering too many people. He bluntly labels the new generation of cartel members "out-of-control killers" who have left Nuevo Laredo and its home state of Tamaulipas in anarchy. Finally, the shuttle arrives an hour late. As I take my first step into the shuttle and look at the driver, it is aromatically apparent that pot has been smoked in the shuttle. We get to the hotel in five minutes.
Louie Palu is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow with the New America Foundation.