The John Carman Report

Incident at Otay

Since I will have a lot to talk about over the next few months, I will start by telling you all about a very large and infamous cocaine bust that occurred on or about October 4, 1990 at the Otay Mesa Cargo Facility West compound. This is where the Hidro Juarez Gas propane tankers were "allowed" to enter after "normal" business hours from about 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

According to security and anti-smuggling procedures set down by San Diego Customs commercial truck coordinators, these trucks were only allowed to exit the United States and return after dripping off their respective "loads" of cargo in Mexico and returning "empty" within a 16 hour window of time.

There were also Customs "High Security Seals" that were specially designed to be placed through the riveted and bolted steel plates normally used for attaching pressure hoses for the input of propane gas. These plates are the only accessible areas at the rear of the tanker trucks.

By way of a brief description for those who are not familiar with these huge vehicles, the steel plates I am referring to are about 18 inches in diameter and have approximately 18-20 1/2 inch steel bolts running through the plate attaching itself to the tanker. Two of the 1/2 inch bolts contain a hole drilled specifically for the Customs Security seal to pass through and be secured at the other end of the diameter... (i.e. 10 o'clock to 4 o'clock position). Each of the red security bolts have a red locking device which allow the male counterpart to be inserted into the receiving red seal permanently, without being able to be retracted... once set. These pieces would show any sign of tampering if someone tried to remove or cut them.

During the incident I am about to report I was one of several Customs Inspectors who aggressively checked these seals for tampering or suspicious activity. Because the tanker trucks that used these seals could easily transport as much as 100,000 lbs. of cocaine... or any dangerous narcotic quite easily... I made it a personal mission to ensure that no truck that passed my way contained a tampered seal. I guess you might consider me obsessed in my mission but my job was to make sure no drugs made it to the streets of my country on my watch.

A bit more about the seal and the inspection process... each high security seal was serially numbered. A special inspection of the propane tanker was carried out before finally attaching the high security seal by only two qualified and trusted Customs commercial qualified senior inspectors. I received special training on propane tankers prior to this program being implemented.

However, there were times when these high security seals were discovered "removed" by "unknown persons", or they were never properly attached. I do not want to believe the latter... the reason: with all the money and power that cocaine smuggling cartels have, compared to the miniscule budget for interdicting narcotics in this great country of ours, it is no wonder that criminal and corrupt individuals could easily possess their own counterfeit "Customs High Security Seals" made to match the serially-numbered seals. There are documented accounts of these propane tanker trucks being "hijacked" in Mexico, drugs on-loaded and counterfeit seals attached -- prior to entering the United States within their 16-hour entry window -- for the purpose of flooding cocaine into the United States.

Also, these Customs high security seals were attached permanently by no more than two commercially qualified Senior Customs Inspectors. One of these Inspectors was promoted to Supervisor and the other has since retired.

The Hidro Juarez Propane tanker story...

Back in the mid to late 80's, by way of a "special" agreement, former Customs District Director Allan J. Rappoport allowed Mexican propane tanker trucks to enter the United States through our main port of entry at the San Ysidro border crossing. San Ysidro is the world's largest land border entrance with approximately 24 lanes of vehicular traffic to process millions of vehicles each year. (You can see actual footage of these tanker trucks in a movie called "The Border" starring Charles Bronson who portrays a Border Patrol Agent)

With Rappaport's nod these tankers should have passed through the commercial compound at Otay Mesa for safety and road hazard reasons. These tanker trucks were never inspected properly when they passed through the San Ysidro P.O.E. However, later, in 1989, these tankers were moved to enter through Otay Mesa Cargo West where the "infamous" cocaine seizure took place.

On or about October 3, 1990, the night before the aforementioned major cocaine seizure, I was working across the street at the main port of entry at Otay Mesa. To the west of me was the Otay Mesa cargo west facility. This is where commercial trucks and cargo entered the U.S. from Mexico, and left the U.S. for Mexico. By way of brief background, Customs employed special equipment and scales to monitor/verify heavy-vehicle weights. Only through comparing a truck's recorded weight with its actual weight could Customs determine if there was an "overage" of some sort... that is, containing substances not authorized on the shipping manifest. To assist Customs, the California Highway Patrol was occasionally called in to examine a vehicle's safety issues.

On this night we discovered a discrepancy with one of the Hidro propane tanker trucks. The usual procedure and policy was to have a Customs K-9 Officer run his dog around each tanker and driver before they were released into the United States. Following the dog run, tankers were required to be checked by an Inspector to verify their time sheets and security seals. Unfortunately, and in complete violation of established procedure, not everyone Inspector took the time to check each seal because doing so required them to climb aboard each truck using a cumbersome ladder.

On this occasion the dog alerted our attention to the upper area of a tanker under inspection. (Customs dogs are trained to "raise up"... indicating it is getting a scent in the higher areas of the 12 foot high truck.) Usually, most dogs will simply "work" the areas near the ground... within 3 feet or so... but the dedication to duty of the dogs, combined with the experience of our personnel working with these specially trained K-9's, can reap tremendous rewards when procedure is followed correctly. In this case, the next thing that happened became very suspect.

Enter Supervisory Customs Inspector Arthur D. Gilbert. For some reason, Gilbert did not want tonight's string of propane tankers to be inspected. When noticing the lead tanker was being held up by the K-9 officer who was advising other Customs Inspectors of an "alert" by his dog, Gilbert approached the group to inquire. Advised of a possible problem by the K-9 Officer, Gilbert surprised the Officer by insisting that the dog had probably detected a residual "roach" or "joint" odor clinging to truck's lower body, perhaps a fragment of marijuana clinging to a groove in a tire. However, arguing that the dog clearly detected a problem higher up on the truck, the K-9 Officer correctly insisted that an intensive search and verification be made. As it was, because he was outranked by Gilbert, but not without strong disagreement, the Officer was forced to allow this tanker and others following it, to proceed into the country.

The next night, October 4, 1990, another K-9 inspection, this time involving a different Officer, again detected a problem when 8-10 Hidro propane tanker trucks arrived. And again, Gilbert approached the Officer insisting that the dog, aptly named Snag, was either in error or the odor Snag detected was residual. But on this occasion the Officer, having learned of the previous night's incident involving Gilbert and another Officer, notified the K-9 Supervisor before Gilbert could order the tankers freed.

The arriving K-9 Supervisor, who was well aware of Snag's abilities, became convinced an alert was real and intensive inspection was warranted. However, Gilbert vehemently insisted that no problem existed and the tankers should be immediately released. Seeking a reasonable compromise the K-9 Supervisor suggested Gilbert have the tanker's tires removed for inspection. Suggestion denied. The K-9 Supervisor then suggested that the tanker be re-weighed because there appeared to be a weight discrepancy. Suggestion again denied. Eventually, because Gilbert's behavior was so completely uncharacteristic of a U.S. Customs supervisor, the K-9 Supervisor threatened to call in Internal Affairs investigators. Gilbert moonwalked

By this time the tanker driver was nervous and sweating like a July afternoon. Noticing the driver's anxiety, Gilbert sought to have the driver released... in which he succeeded. Never in the memory of any Customs officer on the scene was a suspect driver allowed to return to Mexico. This was unheard of. You don't let your "suspect driver" go home for the night!

About this time other Customs inspectors had the tanker moved back to the scales. A conformational re-weighing clearly revealed the tanker's weight was 7,500 to 8,000 pounds heavier than it should have been. Again, another first in the experiences of the other Customs officer's on the scene occurred... Gilbert allegedly insisted that the scales were broken! Amazing! Can you imagine a United States Customs Supervisor trying to work around that one.

Eventually, the tanker's seal was cut and the inspection plate was removed. Not surprisingly, over 7,500 lbs. of cocaine in neatly wrapped packages were discovered inside the tanker. The rest is documented history.

The irony of this episode is that Supervisor Arthur D. Gilbert tried to get "credit" for assisting in the largest cocaine seizure made in Customs history at that time. He even posed with the inspectors to have their picture published in "Customs Today" monthly magazine.

The driver, of course, escaped... for a short time. Sometime later his body was said to have been discovered in the trunk of a vehicle... a tire iron bisecting his head.

Subsequently, GS-13 Supervisory Customs Inspector Arthur D. Gilbert was reportedly "removed for the good of the Service" in 1997 after Customs Commissioner George J. Weise resigned "to be with his family".

Post Script: Former Customs District Director Allan J. Rappoport resigned within 24 hours of learning about an investigation against himself. His resignation, termed an "early retirement" occurred less than 30 days after the above cocaine seizure took place.

As a result of this incident many changes were instituted to make it more difficult for truckers to smuggle narcotics into the United States.

References: Senate Hearings on Government Oversight and Committee on Government Operations House Of Representatives. March 26, 27 and April 1, 1992. ISBN# 0-16-039255-1.Government Printing Office.

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