CBP does not expect, or want, to stop everything that crosses the border. Facilitating the flow of commerce is central to its mission, and as a result Laredo is, on a given day, the busiest commercial “land port” in the U.S. When I visited the World Trade Bridge there, the facility was nearing the end of an expansion project that would double the number of primary lanes used to help process the 1.5 million trucks that pass through the port every year.
Jose Uribe, the port’s amiable and efficient assistant director, described his operation as he drove us across and against oncoming truck traffic, dodging and weaving like a veteran player of Grand Theft Auto. To my inexpert eye, the scene was a chaotic riot of monstrous trucks and looming, barn-like scanners. Five thousand trucks a day on average, laden with every conceivable commodity—blue jeans, auto parts destined for just-in-time delivery to a factory in Tennessee—pass through this facility. “I’ve been in Laredo for 34 years,” Uribe told me. “I can remember back in the late ’70s we had mostly curios, some heavy steel.” Then came Nafta. “Now, you name it and we see it. Everything from laptops to three-piece suits.”
As Uribe’s tour progressed, patterns began to emerge before my untrained eyes, and I could see that the operation here was a miracle of logistics. Each vehicle, as it passed through the layered enforcement process that began with the submission of an electronic manifest at least one hour prior to its actual arrival, was tracked from station to station. At any point, a customs officer could create an “issue”: tagging the shipment for more-intensive scrutiny, which might mean submitting to a higher-resolution x-ray scan or offloading the complete contents of a shipment.
Inspectors at the World Trade Bridge deploy an impressive array of scanning devices, from old-fashioned low-energy x-ray machines to backscatter and high-energy x-ray and gamma-ray scanners. The high-energy x-rays, which inspectors used to scan the most visually challenging commodities, produce marvelous, almost gallery-quality images. One can see the internal structure of a large tractor-trailer rig with hallucinatory clarity—the gears inside a transmission, the pushrods in the engine. Uribe showed me scans of a road roller, the kind used to compress hot asphalt, and inside the large, dense roller wheel were packages of drugs. A load of gypsum board was laden with marijuana, the voids inside the pallets revealed by the scan. Scans of a southbound truck carrying rolls of fabric revealed suspicious areas of density; using software-enhancement tools, the scanning technician was able to detect the presence of $1.2 million in cash, a small fraction of the estimated $18 billion to $39 billion that the cartels smuggle across the border every year (of which $147 million was seized in 2010). Another scan showed packages of cocaine stamped with the logo of the Gulf Cartel.
Smugglers are often stupid, and sometimes they are greedy, as when they attempt to cram one or two more packages into a well-concealed cavity in a vehicle. They are just as frequently ingenious, however, as when they hid a load of drugs inside a large tank of used oil, which scanners can’t penetrate. These smugglers were perfectly aware of the limits of the technology. What they were unable to defeat, in that case, was the power of a dog’s nose.
Dogs, at border checkpoints as well as traffic checkpoints 70 miles from the line, have found people hidden in the engine compartments of trucks, sewn sitting upright into the backseats of cars, and in one case wedged into a modified console such that when customs officers opened the hatch between the front seats, they saw a man’s face staring up.
At ports serving the general public, such as the much smaller but extremely modern crossing in Del Rio, security measures are directed not only at the endless stream of commodities that pass through these facilities, but at the bodies of the individual people presenting themselves for entry: their facial expressions, postures, affect, clothing and emotional dispositions.
Sharon Ansick, a tactical logistics officer who went to high school with my sister, gave me the grand tour of the Del Rio facility. Video cameras were everywhere, 150 in all. Doors and windows were secured, and passage in and out of facilities, as well as from one area to another within a compound or building, was tightly controlled. Ansick explained that this was called passive security. Everyone who entered this facility, whether they knew it or not, had entered a panopticon. Their every move was registered, recorded, observed, and controlled. No one could leave without permission. Border runners would be met with road spikes that jut up from the pavement at the push of a distress button. Few would ever realize the degree to which their liberty had been constrained.
All incoming and outgoing license plates are photographed, and all drivers too. All recently issued passports, green cards and day-entry cards contain radio-frequency ID chips that broadcast the identify of a traveler at the primary checkpoint, and the Del Rio port is the first to deploy a special RFID lane to speed processing. When I was there, traffic was light and lines were short, but there was a sense of high alertness throughout the facility. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents armed with M-4 rifles loitered near the secondary station. Supervisory agents, in a glass-encased control room overlooking the traffic lanes, kept watch over the whole proceeding, monitored the video feeds, and maintained radio contact with personnel all over the port.
The port’s noncommercial traffic—about two million vehicular travelers and 50,000 pedestrians annually—is not routinely scanned. Instead, CBP officers interview drivers in a primary lane and use special angled mirrors to inspect the underside of all vehicles, and if a dog sniffs something suspicious or something about the car seems unusual, or if the driver seems nervous or simply came from an area of interest, the officer will call for a secondary inspection. At that point, density meters, mirrors, x-ray scanners and the whole repertoire of what CBP terms non-intrusive inspection techniques come into play. Nowadays few cars are dismantled or drilled without evidence derived from one of these methods. One recent seizure came about because an officer manning the primary lane noticed that a vehicle, driven by a lone male, was uncommonly clean. A trip to the VACIS x-ray scanner settled the matter. After some probing and chipping, agents discovered several pounds of heroin and methamphetamine.
As we passed through the port, the routine business of inspection and seizure continued all around us, and it was that routine of passive and all-encompassing surveillance that seemed to offer the most plausible model for what Kenneth Knight’s total domain awareness might look like. The primary question taking shape in my mind was: Where and how would the limits of the border domain be set?
As if in answer to my silent wonderment, Ansick pointed out that CBP enforces regulations on behalf of 44 other governmental agencies, including the FDA, the EPA and the USDA. Inspectors go through agricultural loads by hand, searching for tiny insects, egg casings under leaves, and other stowaways on legitimate imports. Palo Verde wood borers show up in stacks of firewood. Cattle must be examined for Rocky Mountain spotted fever ticks. In Del Rio, people arrive with juicy, stinky fermenting cheeses, deer heads, oranges, cowboy boots made from endangered species like sea turtles. The guy with the sea-turtle boots was a recent case, a native of San Luis Potosí, the state where Jaime Zapata was murdered, and the officer interviewing him just happened to notice the boots. The boots went into a freezer, and the poor man, who naively admitted what they were, left in his socks.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.