Recent Local Drug Busts

1:50 p.m., April 4, 2003
SAN YSIDRO - U.S. Border Patrol agents Friday discovered a marijuana-filled truck parked over a covered hole in the ground that concealed a "sophisticated tunnel" for transporting drugs under the border.

Smugglers would apparently drag bundles of marijuana from the Mexican side of the border through the tunnel, coming up just under the truck inside the U.S. Hidden from view by the vehicle, they would hand the illegal drugs to an accomplice in the truck through a hole cut in the truck's bottom, according to a Border Patrol official.

Agents were on routine patrol when they discovered the "U-Haul-type truck" containing more than 3,000 pounds of marijuana in the 24-hour parking lot immediately adjacent to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, Border Patrol spokesperson Ben Bauman said. (Marijuana worth about $2,400,000 million dollars)

Then, while they were "cleaning up the scene," the agents noticed a "concrete slot" cut into the ground where the truck had been parked, according to Bauman.

Beneath the slot was a "sophisticated tunnel" with lights, plastic sheeting and bracing materials to keep it from caving in, Bauman said.

"It looks like they would crawl through the tunnel with a bundle of marijuana, go to the very end where they could open this concrete slot, slide the bundle through, and the person in the vehicle would pick it up through a hole in the vehicle," Bauman said.

It wasn't clear what triggered the agents' interest in the truck. Border Patrol and Drug Enforcement Administration officials were at the scene continuing their investigation, Bauman said. No further details were immediately available.

Click here to return to the Customs Corruption homepage  Return to the Customs Corruption homepage

Agents discover border tunnel

3,300 pounds of marijuana found in a nearby truck
By Anna Cearley and Janine Zúñiga
April 5, 2003

SAN YSIDRO - Border Patrol agents on routine patrol yesterday morning discovered a cross-border drug tunnel and a truck nearby crammed with about 3,300 pounds of marijuana.

The U.S. end of the tunnel was in a parking lot that usually is crowded with tourists who park their cars in the United States before walking into Mexico. The 10-acre lot is next to the border fence in San Ysidro, near the pedestrian border crossing.

"It's almost next to unbelievable," said Israel Adato, president of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce. "It's just amazing. A lot of people have their attention diverted to terrorism instead of drugs. It's good that they found it. A lot of other things could have been pushed through the tunnel."

The tunnel followed the border fence for about 65 feet, then veered toward Mexico. U.S. agents crawled through the part of the tunnel on the U.S. side but stopped when the hole narrowed and they believed it was unsafe.

By last night about two dozen Mexican federal agents had surrounded a two-story building a few feet from the border in Tijuana, where the other end of the tunnel is believed located. They said they detected a marijuana odor but couldn't enter the locked building until they got a court order, which can take 24 hours.

The tunnel is the fifth discovered along the San Diego County section of the border in a little more than a year.

In February 2002, authorities uncovered a 1,000-foot tunnel that stretched from a Mexican ranch house east of Tecate to a house in eastern San Diego County. That tunnel, in which about 600 pounds of fresh marijuana was found, was believed to be used by associates of the Arellano Félix drug cartel and was equipped with electric lighting, an apparent ventilation system and rails to haul heavy loads.

Authorities couldn't estimate how long the latest tunnel had been in use. Drug Enforcement Administration officials said the marijuana found yesterday has a street value of between $2.3 million and $2.7 million.

U.S. authorities arrested two men found near the truck; both are Mexican nationals. No arrests were announced in Mexico, although authorities were searching for suspects at random checkpoints.

Border Patrol agents found the two men who were arrested about 6:35 a.m. while searching for illegal immigrants. The agents noticed a strong smell of marijuana coming from a truck parked nearby at the curb, a few feet from the border fence.

Inside the truck they found marijuana bundled into brick-sized packages. They also found a hidden opening in the truck's bottom.

At first it wasn't clear where the drugs had come from, because there was no obvious hole indicating a tunnel nearby. Authorities finally located the tunnel by poking a rod into a depressed section of asphalt. Part of the asphalt collapsed, leading them to a tunnel about three feet in diameter, with an electrical light system and retaining walls made of plastic tubing and wood. Inside they found food wrappers, soda cans, flashlights and an aerosol can of dog repellent.

The operation apparently required the services of three or four people.

Authorities say one person in the tunnel probably handed the bundled drugs through a small opening in a storm drain. Another person lowered himself into the storm drain through a nearby manhole, received the bundles, then passed them through a drainage opening in the curb to someone under the truck. That person probably passed the packages to someone inside the truck.

"This was a real shock to us," said Border Patrol spokesman Raleigh Leonard. "We were surprised that they had such a sophisticated operation right here."

Leonard said the truck appeared to have been intentionally hidden from view by a car parked nearby. The car was towed away, he said.

Smugglers are getting more brazen, Leonard said, because U.S. agents have increased their patrols along the border in the East County. With those routes blocked, smugglers are searching for different routes for their U.S.-bound drugs.

To reach Mexican soil the tunnel had to go under a drainage canal that is five or six feet deep, an asphalt street used by Border Patrol agents, and two border fences, Border Patrol officials said.

Noel Chavez, who manages the SYG Venture Parking Lot, said he knew nothing about the tunnel.

The lot's owners couldn't be reached for comment. However, a SYG representative discussed the company's safety procedures in a March 2001 opinion piece that appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune after a less-than-favorable editorial on crime at border parking lots.

Judson Brady wrote that the lot had a state-of-the-art video surveillance camera and a full-time security guard who patrolled the lot with a spotlight.

Some local business owners were shocked that a tunnel could have been built so close to the world's busiest land border crossing.

Leo Cohen, manager of UETA Duty Free Americas, a 15,000-square-foot store next to the lot, said he didn't see or hear anything.

"Around our store, we have security all night long," Cohen said. "They would have let us know if they found anything. This is bad news."

Debra Marbut, owner of nearby Border Station Parking, said she and her employees walk every inch of their lot regularly, checking for anything that might endanger her customers. Still, she wasn't completely surprised by the discovery.

"It happened in Otay Mesa," Marbut said. "It can happen in San Ysidro or anywhere along the border. I've seen pictures of the tunnels they've found previously, where people have been digging away forever. It can certainly happen that people have no clue, then all of a sudden, 'Hello, we're here.' "

Click here to return to the Customs Corruption homepage  Return to the Customs Corruption homepage

Tijuana mechanics find drugs in car

Chula Vista man says he purchased vehicle at U.S. Customs auction
By Anna Cearley
July 16, 2003

Mexican federal authorities are investigating a Chula Vista man's claim that he didn't know about 15 kilos of marijuana hidden in a car he bought at a U.S. auction three months ago. Adrian Rodriguez, who was taken into custody yesterday, said he bought the 1991 gray Volkswagen Passat in April at an auction in San Diego County. Rodriguez said he took the car to a Tijuana auto shop because the car was making noises. He was at the shop yesterday when mechanics found the drugs, he said. "They realized that there was a rectangular, metal-type box under the car . . . so they took out the back seat and found it full of drugs," Rodriguez said. He said he and the mechanics decided to call city police once they found the drugs, "because we didn't know what to do." Tijuana City Police spokesman Raúl García said about 10 packets of plastic-wrapped marijuana were found in the car's secret space, and the drugs' estimated weight was 15 kilos, or about 33 pounds. The police handed Rodriguez over to the Mexican Attorney General's Office, which investigates drug-related crimes. Rodriguez's wife, who accompanied Rodriguez to federal headquarters, said her husband is a U.S. resident. Rodriguez said the car was bought at a U.S. federal auction, but that could not be confirmed yesterday. Last year, two Tijuana men who said they bought a car from the U.S. Customs Service were arrested in Mexico after authorities found marijuana hidden in their car. They spent almost a year in prison until a Mexican federal appeals court overturned their convictions. In a 1999 case, a Mexican national who bought a car at a U.S. Marshals Service auction in San Diego was arrested by U.S. authorities at the border when they found drugs in a secret compartment. His case eventually was dismissed and a U.S. federal appeals court recently ruled he can sue the U.S. government.

Click here to return to the Customs Corruption homepage  Return to the Customs Corruption homepage

Local man charged in Mexico for pot in car

Chula Vista resident bought vehicle at U.S. customs auction
By Anna Cearley and Sandra Dibble
July 18, 2003

JOHN GIBBINS / Union-TribuneAdrian Rodriquez of Chula Vista was taken from jail to prison in Tijuana.

TIJUANA - Mexican prosecutors yesterday charged a Chula Vista man with drug possession after marijuana turned up in a car he and his wife bought in March at an auction of vehicles seized by U.S. customs.

Adrian Rodriguez, 25, a University of California San Diego graduate, has been in custody since Tuesday, when he alerted Mexican police to the 33 pounds of marijuana that his Tijuana auto mechanic found in a secret compartment of the 1991 Volkswagen Passat.

A source close to the investigation said a factor in the decision to charge Rodriguez was that the marijuana appeared to be fresh. However, the source also said marijuana can stay fresh longer if it has been tightly packaged, so the drugs could have been hidden in the car before Rodriguez and his wife bought it.

A federal judge has 72 hours to decide whether to dismiss or uphold the charges, although Rodriguez's attorney could request extra time. The attorney wasn't available for comment yesterday.

Rodriguez is being held at La Mesa State Penitentiary. If convicted, he faces five to 15 years in prison.

This isn't the first time drugs have been found in vehicles that were seized and then auctioned by the U.S. government.

In two San Diego civil suits making their way through the federal courts, the U.S. government has been accused of negligence for failing to properly inspect vehicles before putting them up for auction. In both cases, the buyers served time in prison before they were exonerated or the charges against them were dropped.

The incident involving Rodriguez and the Passat began when he and his wife bought the car at an auction conducted by El Cajon-based McCormack Auction Co. The company is a subcontractor for EG&G Technical Services, which auctions items seized by the government.

A U.S. Treasury Department Web site lists the Passat as one of 152 vehicles auctioned March 5 in Chula Vista. The listed buyer was Rodriguez's wife, Ali Jazmin Rodriguez.

On Tuesday, Rodriguez brought the car to a Tijuana auto shop because it was making a strange sound, and he hoped to save some money by getting it fixed in Mexico.

The mechanic found the marijuana, wrapped in several plastic bags, in a secret compartment beneath the car's back seat.

After Rodriguez and the mechanic called police, Rodriguez was taken into custody by the Mexican Attorney General's Office, which deals with drug-related crimes. The investigators had 48 hours to decide whether to file charges, which they did yesterday.

Daniel Sevilla Mercado, the owner of the auto shop, Taller Leo, said he believes Rodriguez is innocent because of the circumstances of the drugs' discovery and because of Rodriguez's reaction.

"He was frightened and very surprised, and he asked me what should we do. I said we should call the police, and he said, 'Yes,' " Sevilla said. "I am 100 percent sure he didn't have anything to do with it, because if he knew it was there, then he wouldn't have brought the car in."

U.S. customs officials wouldn't say why the vehicle was seized, but vehicle confiscations by the agency on the California border usually involve drugs.

Vincent Bond, public-affairs officer for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, declined to answer questions that he asked to be submitted to him by electronic mail.

"We are conducting an inquiry into these matters," he wrote back. "Therefore, it would be inappropriate for us to discuss these matters at this time."

The agency in the past has refused to discuss its procedures for inspecting seized vehicles, but other U.S. law enforcement officials say vehicles are checked repeatedly by dogs or with X-ray machines, and sometimes with both.

"If there's dope and they don't find it, it's usually very well-hidden," one law enforcement source said.

In the two cases being litigated in federal court, one involves a vehicle auctioned by U.S. customs, while the other involves a vehicle seized by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and auctioned off through the U.S. Marshals Service.

The Marshals Service does not confiscate vehicles, but is in charge of disposing of those seized by other federal agencies, including the FBI, the former INS and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"As far as any contraband left in the cars, that is solely the responsibility of the originating agency," said David Bejarano, the former San Diego police chief who now heads the U.S. Marshals Service office for San Diego and Imperial counties. The vehicles processed by the Marshals Service are auctioned by a private contractor, Robertson Leasing.

Like the other auction companies, Robertson does not conduct its own searches. But one Robertson employee has found drugs hidden in vehicles on four occasions, said Daniel Clar, the company's general manager and auctioneer in San Diego.

"The chances of something slipping through are very slim, but certainly it's there," Clar said.

Rodriguez's family, which has ties on both sides of the border, hopes to assemble enough information to persuade the judge to drop the charges against him.

Rodriguez was born in San Bernardino and graduated from Montgomery High School in San Diego, his mother said. UCSD confirmed that he graduated in 2002 with a degree in human development and had minored in Spanish literature.

At the time of his arrest, he was employed as a social worker at a foster-care center for children with special needs, said his wife, who is originally from Tijuana. The couple have a 14-month-old son, also named Adrian.

Family members and friends said Rodriguez is the kind of person who tries to do the right thing.

"He would have been offended if someone had too many beers next to him," said a college friend, James Tritt, who worked with Rodriguez at a campus restaurant.

Rodriguez was described as a quiet person who did well in school. He is deeply religious, his friends said, and tried to avoid working on Sundays so he could go to church.

Another college classmate, Candice Barfoot, said she wasn't surprised that Rodriguez agreed to call the police when the marijuana was found in his car because "he was just really straight-laced. ... He was all about his church."

Tritt said it probably never occurred to Rodriguez that he might be considered a suspect in the case.

"He's kind of naive about a lot of stuff, and I think he trusted that he wouldn't be victimized or betrayed for trying to help the case."

Editor's Comment:
Here's another example of the incompetence of U.S. Custom officials to properly examine a seized vehicle which still contained contraband and an innocent family suffers because of it.

Not only has this been confirmed in the past by the Editor of Customs, but the auction and tow yards involved in the handling of seized vehicles has admitted finding narcotics or contraband on several occasions. That should tell you something about the lack of procedures and lazy officials that assume everything is found.

An innocent man and his family need NOT suffer or be put in jail when there is evidence of negligence on behalf of the U.S. Customs Service and it's employees.

The government should never sit back and let an innocent man go to jail. They should get directly involved with exonerating an innocent man. A famous person once said, "It is better to let ten criminals go free than to convict one innocent man."

Again, here is another example of "no good deed goes unpunished".

No one will want to take a chance at buying a government auctioned vehicle unless the government takes the responsibility of future liabilities after the vehicle is sold with contraband still inside the vehicle. There are some Customs officials that will LIE to protect themselves anyway.

Click here to return to the Customs Corruption homepage  Return to the Customs Corruption homepage

Man will sue Customs over stay in prison

Marijuana cache found in auto sold by agency

By Anna Cearley
August 20, 2003

TIJUANA - Adrian Rodriguez, who spent a month in a Mexican prison after drugs were found in a car he bought at a U.S. Customs auction, has decided to take legal action against the government agency that originally confiscated the car.

"We never asked for this to happen to us, and it was the most difficult and terrifying month in my life," the Chula Vista resident said yesterday at a news conference in Tijuana. "I believe U.S. Customs is responsible for what my wife and family had to go through - to go through this terrible separation and not know what was going to happen."

One of Rodriguez's three Tijuana attorneys, José Miguel Ramírez Bilbao, said they have already discussed the case with several U.S. attorneys.

Among them is Teresa Trucchi, who is representing two Tijuana printers in a similar lawsuit. The printers claim the U.S. government was negligent when it sold them a car with marijuana hidden in a wheel well. They spent nearly a year in an Ensenada prison before an appellate court overturned their conviction.

Rodriguez, a U.S. citizen, said he would return to work Monday at New Alternatives Inc., a nonprofit child welfare organization. He and his wife, Ali Jazmin, said they hope their lawsuit will prevent other families from suffering as they have.

Rodriguez, 25, was arrested July 15 after he took his car to Tijuana for repairs. Inside the car, which was previously confiscated by U.S. Customs inspectors after they found drugs inside, the mechanic found a secret compartment filled with marijuana.

On Thursday, a Mexican appellate judge freed Rodriguez after determining it didn't make sense for Rodriguez to take the car to a mechanic, agree to call police, and wait for police to show up if he knew about the drugs.

Rodriguez said he was grateful his prison stay wasn't longer. In 1999, a Tijuana man spent 31/2 months in a U.S. prison after border inspectors found marijuana in a hidden compartment in his car. He was released after U.S. prosecutors dropped charges against him.

That man, José Aguado Cervantes, also bought his car in a U.S. auction after it had been seized. He, too, has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government.

Trucchi said Rodriguez's case, and the recent case of a 12-year-old Mexican girl who stayed hidden in a seized car for almost two days, appear to be factors in the U.S. government's recent steps to improve car inspection procedures.

However, Trucchi said, "the steps to prevent future mistakes doesn't erase the damages done in the past. They need to take care of those people."

Rodriguez spent much of the weekend enjoying his freedom. He said he was apprehensive about returning to Mexico for the news conference. To make the trip, he had to borrow a family member's car, because his car is still in Tijuana.

Rodriguez said the decision to pursue legal action came after two days of discussions with his wife. The only thing holding them back, he said, was that "I've been wanting to put it behind, and now we will have to relive it."

Click here to return to the Customs Corruption homepage  Return to the Customs Corruption homepage

20 arrested in airport drug-smuggling case

Baggage, cargo handlers charged

By Robert F. Worth
November 26, 2003

NEW YORK - Federal agents yesterday arrested 20 airport baggage and cargo handlers and charged them with running a decadelong drug smuggling operation that brought hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana a year through Kennedy International Airport under the noses of customs officials.

The arrests unveiled a criminal conspiracy of stunning duration, prosecutors said, in which the baggage handlers moved drug shipments worth tens of millions of dollars through the airport with virtual impunity. The smuggling operation also showed what federal officials called a vulnerability in the nation's airline security system. Unlike baggage screeners, who became federal employees subject to more stringent federal regulations in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, baggage and cargo handlers are often employed by private contractors working for airlines.

"A network of corrupt airport employees, motivated by greed, might just as well have been collaborating with terrorists as with drug smugglers," Michael J. Garcia, the acting assistant secretary of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said at a news conference to announce the arrests.

The arrests concluded a 14-month investigation during which federal agents seized more than 400 kilograms of cocaine and hundreds of pounds of marijuana arriving at Kennedy on international flights, almost all of them from Guyana and Jamaica, officials said. One of the shipments, a 185-kilogram package of cocaine worth $23 million found in the cargo section of a passenger flight in September, is the largest intercepted at Kennedy, officials said.

The baggage handlers and their supervisors, who had unrestricted access to the tarmac and airplanes, worked together to unload the drug shipments, prosecutors said. They would then move them to safe areas for pickup and distribution, carefully avoiding surveillance cameras and all forms of border inspection and security, prosecutors said.

The drugs were hidden in luggage, cargo boxes and, in at least one instance, buried under bags of ice in the galley of a passenger flight, said Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, whose office worked with customs officials and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the investigation.

"This was a classic inside job," Mauskopf said.

The conspiracy came to light in late 2002, Mauskopf said, after customs officials intercepted several shipments of cocaine on Universal Airlines flights from Guyana. Agents began doing surveillance of the airline and soon arrested an airport employee diverting a suitcase containing 17 kilograms of cocaine.

The employee began cooperating with investigators, who recorded him discussing drug shipments with a number of the principals in the smuggling operation.

After working undetected for years, the baggage handlers seemed to think they were invincible, a law enforcement official said.

"This was a joke to them," he said.

Prosecutors declined to comment yesterday on who supplied and distributed the drugs, saying their investigation was continuing.

Customs Corruption Comment: This is still another example of the ongoing corruption that goes "un-checked" by Customs internal affairs, OIG and DOJ. It has been going on for decades and no one wants to listen to the "whistleblowers".
John Carman~

Click here to return to the Customs Corruption homepage  Return to the Customs Corruption homepage