TED ROBBINS: Hector Rosas is hauling a truckload of shrimp from the seaport in Mexico through the U.S. Port of entry at Nogales, Arizona. He has to move quickly so the shrimp is fresh when it reaches stores and restaurants across the U.S. but first it needs to get into the U.S.
HECTOR ROSAS (Translated): It's essential for them in customs to keep things moving so the product stays fresh and reaches its destination and it would help us to keep things moving.
TED ROBBINS: Since September 11, U.S. Custom inspectors have been operating at level one security. Defined as sustained, intensive anti-terrorism operations. That means they're examining more vehicles for contraband, illegal drugs, explosives, toxins, firearms. They're also screening more individuals to identify suspected criminals and terrorists trying to slip into the U.S. Thorough inspections mean longer waiting times at the border, three to four hours in the weeks following September 11. Delays like that can affect business, especially this time of year. The Department of Agriculture, for instance, estimates that from November through April, half of the nation's vegetables come through this port at Nogales. Assistant port director Anthony Van Ravenswaay says customs officials can keep the flow of traffic moving when they recognize who is trying to cross.
ANTYONY VAN RAVENSWAAY, U.S. Customs Service: We know the local community. We know our local crossers. We have excellent relationships with the trade, and it helps us with our screening process. If someone who has not been through here before, cargo that we've not seen before, if someone like that shows up, they're going to spend a little more time with us.
TED ROBBINS: Another way to speed things while maintaining high security, get more people. A new contingent from the Arizona National Guard recently arrived on the U.S.-Mexico border. Nogales, Arizona Mayor Marco Lopez Jr. asked Arizona Governor Jane Hull for National Guard troops. He says he was worried about the economic impact delays might have on national produce distributors based in his city.
MAYOR MARCO LOPEZ, JR.: We've got 1500 trucks a day with fresh fruits and vegetables and for Nogales, it represents a $6 billion a year industry of fresh fruit and vegetables. Our worry and our fear was that this product was going to rot having to wait long periods of time to cross the border.
TED ROBBINS: The custom service says it's it takes about three years to fully train an inspector so the guard is only assisting with inspections. After this initial inspection, a check of the computer database and an examination of the paperwork, roughly 60% of the trucks are on their way down the road. The other 40% are in for a longer wait. Hector Rosas, for example, forgot to purchase an entry permit for his truck. "The inspector asked me if I had a number one permit," he says, a sticker. "I usually pay for that annually but I don't have it and that's why they're sending me here to check it out." Trucks suspected of carrying contraband goods or undocumented people are literally pulled through a huge x-ray machine. The x-ray images are so detailed customs officials asked us not to show pictures of the screen for security reasons. Inspectors recently found large, illegal drug shipments using this equipment, methamphetamines, marijuana and cocaine, no links to terrorists have been found here since September 11. This recent technology is much faster than the old way, which meant unloading the truck.
SPOKESMAN: Historically if we target a truck, a commercial truck for an examination, and we have to unload it manually, that can take eight hours for one truck. Now we can run it through these high-tech systems these x-ray systems, and get it done in minutes.
TED ROBBINS: And some loads must still be inspected manually not for terrorists or contraband but for insects and plant disease. This is a federal agriculture inspector looking at a shipment of corn. The Department of Agriculture does not check for food safety, poison or contamination. That's the Food and Drug Administration's responsibility. The FDA says it randomly inspects only about 1% of the nation's food supply. Moving traffic through the border while maintaining high security is time consuming, but the combination of more customs personnel and technology, along with the National Guard troops, seems to be working. The wait has now been shortened from three or four hours to what's considered normal for this time of year, less than one hour.