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what happened to the drug war?

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(4:39) The story of how the U.S. government bought some expensive "go fast" boats to stop drug smugglers, but never caught anyone.
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#1110
Original Air Date: February 2, 1993
Written and Produced by Jim Gilmore and Joe Rosenbloom III

ANNOUNCER:
Tonight on FRONTLINE, the war on drugs.

Sen. JOE BIDEN (D-DE):
We're losing the war on drugs. More people are consuming drugs. More violent crime associated with it. More drugs coming across our border.

ANNOUNCER:
FRONTLINE investigates the government's multibillion-dollar efforts to close the borders.

Sen. DENNIS DeCONCINI (D-AZ):
That radar system detects anything that is moving, all the way from Florida to San Diego.

CAROL HALLETT, Former Customs Commissioner:
For all intents and purposes, the air war has been won along the southern border.

JOE ROSENBLOOM, FRONTLINE:
Do you think it means that there's virtually no cocaine coming through here?

TIM FULTON:
I don't think it means that at all.

ANNOUNCER:
Tonight on FRONTLINE, "What Happened to the Drug War?"

NARRATOR:
The Big Bend area of Texas is carved out by the Rio Grande. The river forms the boundary for about half of the 2,000 largely desolate miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Big Bend is known for its harsh beauty and for its rampant drug smuggling.

GREG MISH:
You might want to hold on. This is going to be a little rough.

NARRATOR:
The Border Patrol is the federal agency that guards the vast open spaces between legal ports of entry. Agent Greg Mish has just received a radio call about a border intrusion in process.

Agent MISH:
Well, that's a common occurrence. We get little kids that will play cat and mouse with us all day long.

NARRATOR:
This time it was a false alarm.

Agent MISH:
They really don't mean to make an entry. They just come up here and play with us, say, oh, whatever, and see us coming and just run back and forth all day.

RADIO:
[unintelligible]

Agent MISH:
That last 801 series was an intrusion, but turned back to Mexico.

RADIO:
Ten-four.

NARRATOR:
Agent Mish has over 85 miles of border to patrol, but he is only one soldier in America's war on drugs. The federal government has mobilized thousands of people from 18 different agencies, including federal troops, to stop drug smuggling along America's southwest border.

Marines patrol the New Mexican border in humvees and use night scopes to hunt smugglers. Customs and local law enforcement agents chase smugglers in the Gulf of Mexico in special speedboats. At border stations Customs is scrutinizing every car and truck for drugs and at special control centers Customs technicians study radar screens, looking for suspicious aircraft.

It all amounts to what appear to be the most impenetrable antidrug net ever constructed. But the question is, does it work? Every year hundreds of tons of cocaine, an estimated 70 percent of the total supply, still cross here. It's become America's cocaine-smuggling belt.

In an eight-month investigation, FRONTLINE has looked into America's war on the southwest border. The blitz to interdict drugs at the border began in the mid-'80s. At the time, it was seen as the linchpin to the government's overall anti-drug strategy.

Sen. DENNIS DeCONCINI (D-AZ):
The total funding authorized in Title III, which is the interdiction, is $678 million-at least a beginning.

NARRATOR:
The first dollars were appropriated as part of the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

Sen. DeCONCINI:
The act authorized the government, our government, to create a frontline defense, if you want to call it that, on the war on drugs.

NARRATOR:
Dennis DeConcini of Arizona was the leading advocate in the Senate for the border interdiction provisions of the legislation.

Sen. DeCONCINI:
It also got the Defense Department into it legally, that they could be involved and would have to be involved in the expense and the use of their technology.

Rep. GLENN ENGLISH (D-OR):
That's what I find so hopeful and promising about this piece of legislation. It knits together an entire war on drugs. It is, for the first time in the history of this nation, an honest-to-goodness war on drugs.

NARRATOR:
One of the boldest initiatives was a radar surveillance network stretching from California to Florida, featuring blimps called "aerostats." The first aerostat was unveiled at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The aerostat was designed to float high above the earth, tethered to the ground like a big kite, using its radar to detect air smugglers. Eventually, nine aerostats would be commissioned, each costing an average of $18 million. One of the dignitaries at the ceremony was the man who pushed the program through Congress, Senator DeConcini.

Sen. DeCONCINI:
The aerostat program, which is a great, big balloon filled with gases that keep it afloat at 10,000 to 12,000 or more feet above the earth with a radar system in it, but with no personnel in it-that radar system circles and reaches out 150 miles and detects anything that is moving. And I don't know of any other system that could do this.

NARRATOR:
The Pentagon developed the aerostat design more than a quarter of a century ago. In 1969 a Cuban pilot landed his fully-armed MiG at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. The flight was not noticed until the pilot radioed the control tower, asking in Spanish for permission to defect. The Defense Department quickly ordered an aerostat to plug the embarrassing hole in the nation's cold war defenses.

Carol Hallett was head of the Customs Service under President Bush. She lobbied Congress to support an array of drug war technology.

CAROL HALLETT, Former Customers Commissioner:
The aerostat balloons have been one of the greatest deterrents that has come along, in terms of a border net, and it's just part of the overall strategy of defending our borders, and a very successful strategy when you realize that the-for all intents and purposes, the air war has been won along the southern border.

NARRATOR:
To bolster the aerostats, Customs operates a fleet of P3 radar planes which cost $30 million each. Like the aerostats, they are equipped with downward-looking radar to search for smugglers' aircraft. Another key element in Customs' surveillance and pursuit strategy is the $5.5 million Blackhawk helicopter.

Ms. HALLETT:
Traffickers are the guerrillas and we have to have all of the tools that can go out and meet them and that's what we're doing with Blackhawks, with P-3's, with aerostats, with all of our other aircraft and it is working or we would not be making it more difficult for the traffickers to bring their goods into this country.

NARRATOR:
Here's how the system works. When radar from either the P-3's or an aerostat spots a smuggler's airplane, chase planes are scrambled in pursuit. In actual surveillance footage, Customs can be seen in action. Outfitted with night scopes and radar, the chase planes intercept the target plane and attempt to determine if it might be a smuggler. If indications are positive, a Blackhawk helicopter carrying a crew of armed agents is also scrambled. The "bust" team then lands behind the smugglers to make arrests.

1st AGENT:
OK, the guy is going right to the van. He just jumped in and he's hauling ass!

2nd AGENT:
Close the door.

NARRATOR:
We visited one of the Blackhawk crews stationed in Texas.

ED GEORGE, Blackhawk Pilot:
Our main purpose in the Blackhawk is primarily a bust helicopter. In other words, we carry the-a crew that is going to make the actual bust on the ground.

NARRATOR:
This crew is responsible for 90,000 square miles of border area, an area twice the size of Pennsylvania. But these pilots have seen very little action.

JOE ROSENBLOOM, FRONTLINE:
How long have you been part of it?

Mr. GEORGE:
Three and a half years now.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
And in those three and a half years-

Mr. GEORGE:
Oh, the three and a half years-well-

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
No-

Mr. GEORGE:
I haven't done an air interdictive case with the Blackhawk, per se. I've done-I've followed quite a lot of other aircraft and landed after them and, sure enough, they had violated the border, but they were just citizens who didn't know the requirements of crossing the border. And I've probably stopped five or six of those people, probably, in the last year and a half.

NARRATOR:
This pilot's experience is not uncommon. Customs records show that in 1991 and '92, nationwide, there had been only one Blackhawk cocaine bust as a result of radar surveillance information. One reason for this could be that smugglers have been deterred from trying.

JAMES B. JOHNSTON, Blackhawk Crew Chief, San Antonio:
That's our main job, is to stop air smuggling, and we just don't see it anymore. We don't-we don't think it's happening. It's coming-it's still coming, but by another means. And if that was our original tasking, to stop air smuggling, I think we've-we've accomplished it.

NARRATOR:
But is this the case? Other pilots have told FRONTLINE they are convinced that air smuggling is continuing because of holes in the defenses. Customs has only 18 Blackhawk helicopters. Their top speed is 160 miles per hour. Most are stationed far from the border. The San Antonio base, for instance, is about 150 miles north. That makes it difficult to get where they have to be fast enough.

FRONTLINE reporter Joe Rosenbloom spoke to a Customs Blackhawk pilot who agreed to an interview if his identity remained hidden.

BLACKHAWK PILOT:
[subtitles] If the smuggling aircraft is not identified as a smuggling aircraft until 30 minutes from where it lands, then the helicopter will just never get there. Time constraints won't allow it.

FRANK AULT, Former Customs Adviser:
The option as to when he hops the border and where is, of course, the smuggler's.

NARRATOR:
Frank Ault helped design the air interdiction program as a Customs adviser in the mid-'80s. Once a believer, he is now a critic.

Mr. AULT:
He comes in, plops down in the desert, drops his load and is gone before the Blackhawk can get there. When you spread 18 Blackhawk helicopters, which have 170-knot capability, clear across 3,000 miles of southern border, you don't have very good coverage.

NARRATOR:
Adding more helicopters might help, but the helicopters are only as good as the radar network that supports them.

BLACKHAWK PILOT:
[subtitles] The concept of the radar fence is good, but in reality it hasn't proven effective, which is obvious by the problems with the aerostats, specifically in Texas, in that they're not up.

NARRATOR:
Aerostats are vulnerable to weather-related damage. The three Texas aerostats have been plagued with problems. In Marfa, high winds tore an aerostat into four pieces in January, 1992. In Rio Grande City, strong winds snapped the tether of another. Repairs cost $1 million. In Eagle Pass, one broke free and crashed 40 miles away.

Sen. DeCONCINI:
Oh, we've had a lot of problems with the aerostats, a lot of them. Number one, the problem with the aerostat is they can't fly in inclement weather, so they're down. They average between 70 and 72 percent time they're up.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
What if you were told they operated at 39 percent?

Sen. DeCONCINI:
Well, there may be some particular one-

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
System-wide.

Sen. DeCONCINI:
-that operates at 39.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
System-wide.

Sen. DeCONCINI:
I don't believe that's true.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
Well -

Sen. DeCONCINI:
At least, Customs informs me that they're operating at greater than that.

NARRATOR:
FRONTLINE has obtained the official 1992 work logs. What the Senator is apparently not including in his figures is the down time of the aerostats because of weather-related accidents. When included, the average flying time isn't 70 percent, as the Senator claims. It's only 39.9 percent.

Jack Blum was a staff counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, specializing in drug policy matters.

JACK BLUM:
The aerostats are a tremendous boondoggle. As far as I'm concerned, they're a total waste of money on all sides and, in fact, almost laughable.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
Why?

Mr. BLUM:
First of all, the aerostats have to come down in a high wind. And if the smugglers wait long enough, the wind goes up, the aerostats come down and in they come.

NARRATOR:
Smugglers can also profit from the camouflage of mountainous terrain. The Baboquivari range south of the Port Huachuca aerostat in Arizona is one example.

Mr. AULT:
The cold, hard facts of life are that over 60 percent of what that aerostat can see at Fort Huachuca is masked by rocks. We were very good, technically, but we haven't invented a radar that can see through rocks.

NARRATOR:
And this 1989 report by Congress's General Accounting Office describes another problem with the aerostats. The report found that when smugglers fly under 500 feet, aerostats "have difficulty distinguishing such aircraft ... from surface clutter," such as cars.

FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
We just crossed the Rio Grande. We're in the United States.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
Is that it right below us, there?

FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
That's it right there.

NARRATOR:
We found someone to explain how to beat the radar net. A smuggler for years, he is now an informant for law enforcement agencies. He agreed to talk if we would conceal his identity.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
It looked like we were going to land in an airport in Mexico, right?

FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
Right. That's what it will look like on radar, coming from the south.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
And now we're headed east. And about what is our altitude here?

FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
Oh, about 30 feet off the ground.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
About 30 feet off the ground. And so if the radar were going to pick us up, it would be picking us up about now?

FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
Well, you don't have to worry about that.

NARRATOR:
As he approaches the U.S. border, he dives low near a Mexican airport. On radar, he says, he would appear to be landing in Mexico. But he does not land. He continues toward the border at a very low altitude where, he claims, the radar cannot detect him. He flies through an area smugglers call "the gate." His route takes him within the range of an aerostat in Rio Grande City. The route passes over a factory and power lines, which can interfere with the radar.

On the day of our flight, the aerostat was down for repairs. If this had been a drug run, it would have been that much easier. Once over the border, he will eventually pop up and merge with the normal traffic of crop dusters and small commuter planes. Landing on a small rural runway, he will quickly pull his plane into a hangar, then wait to see if he's been followed.

FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
All pilots know that they're suspected of hauling drugs. And the people watch you pretty close-all agencies.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
But you feel like you can-you can beat them.

FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
Oh, yes. In the air, in bringing it across the border, I know I can.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
Pretty easy to beat them?

FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
Real easy.

NARRATOR:
While smugglers can apparently beat the air interdiction system in Texas, back in Washington many still support it. The reason may be politics.

Mr. AULT:
It's the easy way out. Put some money on it and go away, and walk away from it, and give the American public the warm, fuzzy feeling that the drug problem is being addressed very vigorously.

NARRATOR:
The air interdiction program's strongest supporters here have been Senator DeConcini and a lobbying firm, Parry and Romani. Its offices are in this townhouse located a few blocks from the Capitol. Until late 1992, Parry and Romani represented the primary manufacturer of aerostats.

BRIAN ROSS, NBC News:
[February 21, 1989] On this day at the townhouse, a visitor-Senator DeConcini.

NARRATOR:
In 1989, NBC News correspondent Brian Ross reported on the close relationship between DeConcini and Parry and Romani. The report suggested the lobbyists had cashed in on their political connections. The facts are there. President Romano Romani, seen here with the Senator, once worked on DeConcini's Senate staff. Robert Mills was also an aide to Senator DeConcini before he joined Parry and Romani. He had worked with DeConcini on the original air interdiction legislation. And Ted Mehl-he also worked on the aerostat legislation as a Congressional aide. He then became Parry and Romani's chief Congressional lobbyist for the aerostats. In 1991, Parry and Romani's connections apparently paid off when it successfully lobbied for the funding of four new aerostats. Parry and Romani's client, a company called TCOM, also won the lion's share of the contract, worth more than $100 million.

Jack Blum became familiar with Parry and Romani's connections to DeConcini while working as a Senate investigator in the late 1980s.

Mr. BLUM:
What I'm saying is that former staff very effectively sold the program to their boss. And there's a lot of money here and the contractors who want that went to this group of former staff and said, "Hey, sell it to the boss." Now, that has gone on all the time and it has happened with great frequency.

NARRATOR:
What has also happened is that DeConcini has benefited. These Federal Election Commission reports from Senator DeConcini's re-election campaign list the following contributors: Parry and Romani lobbyists; Charles Craig, a TCOM owner; and numerous PACs of air interdiction manufacturers. Together they have contributed thousands of dollars since 1989. We asked DeConcini about the Parry and Romani contributions.

Sen. DeCONCINI:
The fact that they contribute to my campaign, I would more suspect it's not because they're doing business with Customs, it's because they know me, because I worked with-they worked for me or they feel I'm an honest candidate.

NARRATOR:
There is nothing illegal about these practices. In fact, they're quite common.

Mr. BLUM:
The appropriations process has become a method for hiding favors that can be given by Senators and created an environment in which you make decisions that aren't rationally based, but are simply based on who talked to who and "Do me a favor" and "Get this sort of thing done."

NARRATOR:
And there is one final chapter in the aerostat story. While Congress was approving new aerostats, the Pentagon, the agency charged with operating them, was expressing serious concerns. When we first - asked the Pentagon about their concerns, we were told their findings were classified. But this letter from the Pentagon's top drug policy official to Senator DeConcini states that the Pentagon had "identified several shortcomings in the operational effectiveness of the aerostat."

Sen. DeCONCINI:
Now, does the military all like it? No. Doesn't mean everybody likes the program, but they have been in to brief me within the last, I think, five months, indicating that they feel it's a very cost-effective program. I think that's what you have to do, go talk to them.

NARRATOR:
We did. We were told that the Pentagon still has concerns and that they are moving ahead only because Congress mandated the purchase of the new aerostats. Stephen Duncan was the Pentagon's drug policy chief in the Bush administration.

STEPHEN DUNCAN:
Now, there are sometimes some things that Congress would have us buy that we frankly do not think is the most cost-effective way to go. And when that happens, we candidly tell the Congress we don't think that's the most cost-effective way to go. If the Congress then enacts legislation and says that is the way to go, that becomes law, this department salutes smartly and steps out to implement the law.

Mr. BLUM:
The latest round in the aerostat procurement saga is par for the course. It's really a private discussion. It becomes a matter an individual Senator can log-roll through his appropriations subcommittee. It really isn't reasoned and a matter for public debate. Now, in this case, it's good money after bad. We shouldn't be putting out more aerostats. The military's right.

NARRATOR:
Corpus Christi, Texas-one of the state's outlets to the Gulf of Mexico. Each fall the city sponsors Bayfest, a three-day open-air festival. In September, 1992, we found a display by Customs here. On a perch overlooking the festivities was one of their $150,000 go-fast boats. One hundred thirty of these high-speed boats were acquired by Customs in the 1980s to use in another radar interdiction network, this one based at sea. But here the government concluded the program was a failure.

This is how the program was supposed to work. To stop smugglers coming in by sea, Customs acquired large cruising craft like this 49 foot Hatteras. Equipped with expensive radar systems, they patrolled the coast in tandem with the go fast boats. Corpus Christi became a focus of this intense marine program.

The local head of Customs, Tim Fulton.

TIM FULTON:
We use a boat with radar on it as a platform to detect targets that might be hauling drugs and then we use other boats as interceptors to move out and take a look at the boats and conduct searches, if necessary.

NARRATOR:
But the system never worked as intended. Lou Smit patrolled on go-fast boats during the four years he was a Customs agent in Corpus Christi.

LOU SMIT:
We didn't really do a whole lot. I mean, we went out and we-the term that was used in the office was that we go out and burn holes in the water.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
You do what?

Mr. SMIT:
Burn holes in the water, just spend money in gas and drive the boat. And we didn't really do any boat boardings. We didn't do any type of enforcement activity, so a lot of the times that we were out there would be-well, they would be characterized as surveillance mission, where surveillance would mean you'd be out there fishing.

NARRATOR:
In 1991 the program was scuttled. Commissioner Hallett maintained the program had outlived its usefulness.

Ms. HALLETT:
Our air and marine program has been changed dramatically in the last three years because, once again, our success was so great using go-fast boats in not only seizing drugs but stopping drug traffickers that were using go-fast boats themselves that that has dried up. It's no longer being done.

NARRATOR:
But Customs' confidential studies in '87 and '91 uncovered numerous deficiencies that might have contributed to the program being scrapped. They found the radar was "not useful in rough seas" and the fleet was plagued with "excessive vessel repair down time." As a result, according to the report, "narcotic seizures have steadily declined."

Customs agents in Corpus Christi say their attempts to catch drug smugglers at sea have been frustrating.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
When was the last time you found cocaine on a small boat?

Mr. FULTON:
I don't recall ever catching cocaine on a small boat.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
In the five years you've been here?

Mr. FULTON:
In the five years I've been here.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
Is that surprising to you?

Mr. FULTON:
It is surprising to me. It's very surprising. I don't have an explanation for it other than-I just don't have an explanation why we're not catching cocaine in boats.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
Do you think it means that there's virtually no cocaine coming through here?

Mr. FULTON:
I don't think that it means that at all.

NARRATOR:
Now Customs rarely uses the Blue Thunder except as a public relations device.

Ms. HALLETT:
The fact that we no longer need to use the Blue Thunder on a daily basis and can take it out as a demonstration tool is something that is very important for young people.

NARRATOR:
Though there are problems with the air and sea interdiction programs, the ground war presents an even bigger challenge. Here in the desert the Marines are fighting the drug war. In the summer of 1992, 1,000 reservists were rotated through west Texas and New Mexico to train and to conduct operations against drug smugglers. Their commander was Brigadier General John Pickler.

Brigadier General JOHN PICKLER:
I feel like the law enforcement agencies are doing much to stem the flow of illegal drugs, and in particular cocaine, into this country, especially as it flows through this region that we call the southwest border. And I believe that without the application of D.O.D. resources that we provide to them, they would be far less effective in that effort.

NARRATOR:
Each night, patrols motor through the desert and set up surveillance positions, but this highly-trained and well-equipped force had problems stalking their target.

1st MARINE:
Did you see anything and how far you went out-

2nd MARINE:
Went out about half a mile, about three times in this area. We didn't see anything. Just a lot of rabbits.

1st MARINE:
A lot of rabbits, huh?

NARRATOR:
Tonight, all that is caught in the night scope are other Marines.

3rd MARINE:
Mostly, we've been running into a lot of people who are just, you know, kind of out, you know, partying, drinking or whatever. We'd see a couple people out here, you know, shooting at rabbits. Nothing real big. Nothing real big.

NARRATOR:
Even if the Marines had spotted smugglers, their orders are merely to report the sightings to civilian authorities. Legally, they are not allowed to make arrests. At the end of this two-month $660,000 operation, the Marines' sightings had led to only four marijuana seizures and none of cocaine.

If the smugglers were attempting to skirt the Marines, they could have come in through here, El Paso, Texas-in Spanish, "the passage." This is where the border is most obviously hemorrhaging. Authorities daily attempt to stem the flow of illegal immigrants with little success. For a dollar you can be ferried across the Rio Grande on an inner tube. When the coast is clear, people run for the safety of the city's crowded streets. But the big smugglers don't come by inner tube. They are found among the 35,000 cars and trucks that cross every day. Customs is under constant pressure to keep commerce moving while still searching for drugs.

In 1969 the Nixon administration began its war on drugs with an unprecedented clamp-down at the border. The President ordered officials to stop and search every car and individual. On the first day 100,000 cars were searched, but no drugs were found. After 21 days Nixon concluded the costs were too high and shelved Operation Intercept.

These days inspectors are expected to clear a car every 30 seconds to keep traffic moving.

BORDER GUARD:
Hi. How're you doing? This your car, ma'am?

DRIVER:
Yes, it is.

BORDER GUARD:
And what was the purpose of your visit to Mexico today?

DRIVER:
[unintelligible]

BORDER GUARD:
I see. You live here in El Paso?

NARRATOR:
But they have a wide array of defenses at their disposal, including the use of dope-smelling dogs, random searches and electronic surveillance. But Customs says its moat important assets are its highly-trained agents, who screen the incoming drivers.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
What sort of luck have you had? I mean, have you-have you hit on any drugs lately at all or-

BORDER GUARD:
Sure. The last load I was involved with was in a van and the man that was driving the vehicle did demonstrate a lot of nervousness. And it subsequently led to the seizure of 86 pounds of marijuana in a hidden compartment, just by his nervousness.

NARRATOR:
Despite these defenses, one organization found a way to drive directly through the heart of them. They devised one of the biggest cocaine-smuggling schemes ever. This is the man charged with masterminding the operation. His name is Rafael Munoz. He worked with a family based in El Paso, the Tapias. Together Munoz and the Tapias built an organization so successful that its profits, if legal, would have made it a Fortune 500 company.

Glenn MacTaggart is an assistant U.S. attorney in San Antonio, Texas.

GLENN MacTAGGART:
Very tight-knit group. Love to get together. I mean, if you didn't know they were cocaine dealers, you might think they were just another happy family. Everybody who was involved in the organization, for the most part, was related by blood and there was that element of trust, i.e. everybody in the family knew what was going on and they kept it a secret and improved the security, somewhat analogous, perhaps, to a Mafia family.

NARRATOR:
Rafael Munoz ran the organization out of Juarez, Mexico, just across the river from El Paso. He was the one who allegedly dealt with the Colombian suppliers and he was the one who, authorities say, moved the cocaine from Juarez into the United States. His method was strikingly simple. Nightly, his drivers would haul one to four carloads over the bridges. Munoz owned five luxury sedans with large trunks. The bigger the trunk, the bigger the load they could carry. In 18 months, Munoz would send at least 900 cars directly past Customs defenses. Not one was ever caught.

Once the cars were across the border, this El Paso shopping mall was a transfer point. Cars would be dropped off here by Munoz's drivers, later to be picked up by the Tapia drivers. The cars would then be driven to this warehouse at the edge of town. Here the cocaine would be sorted and repackaged. Up to seven tons would then be loaded into a hidden compartment of a tractor-trailer truck. The rest of the trailer was then packed with a bogus cargo of piñatas and Mexican crafts. Then, on Sunday mornings, the truck would head out toward LOB Angeles.

Mr. MacTAGGART:
They would not take the most direct route to Los Angeles, as you and I would do if we were traveling from EL Paso to LOS Angeles. Instead, they went northeast. They never lost a single truckload traveling through northern New Mexico.

NARRATOR:
This circuitous route was chosen in order to bypass a more direct but better-patrolled one. Instead of heading straight to LOS Angeles, they took secondary roads that wound through the mountains toward the northeast before turning west.

The biggest obstacle in their way was a border patrol checkpoint 65 miles north of El Paso. Here all northbound drivers are stopped and questioned, but the Tapias' trucks always got by.

Mr. MacTAGGART:
They did this very, very carefully. They had cellular telephones to report on their findings and their observations out there. They had perhaps as many as a half a dozen people going through that checkpoint routinely that morning to be sure there were no dogs out there, that there were no shakedowns or extensive inspections of vehicles there.

NARRATOR:
After getting through the checkpoint, the truck would continue on to its destination, driving through the night the 800 miles to Los Angeles. But then the family's luck ran out.

ANNOUNCER:
[September 29, 1989] From ABC, this is World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.

PETER JENNINGS:
Good evening We begin tonight with a single drug raid and the perspective it helps to bring this country's overall drug problem. In Los Angeles overnight, federal agents raided a warehouse and confiscated 22 tone of cocaine. NARRATOR: This was the biggest cocaine bust ever, but the amount seized represented only a fraction of the total the family had successfully smuggled. Finally, it was nothing more than a local citizen's phone call that lead police to the warehouse.

Mr. MacTAGGART:
This fellow apparently saw some suspicious activity and, for one reason or another, based on his experience, his knowledge, his intuition, his judgment, he felt, "There's something here and somebody'd better check on this." And all I can say is thank God he did.

NARRATOR:
Among the boxes of cocaine were plastic bags filled with more than $12 million in cash. So enormous was the bust that officials had to revise their estimates of the total U.S. cocaine supply. The principal members of the Tapia family were rounded up, tried and convicted of drug smuggling and Rafael Munoz is being tried in Mexico on charges that he ran the multi-billion-dollar operation. Back in Texas, authorities were scrambling to explain how so much cocaine could have eluded them.

TRAVIS KUYKENDALL:
Well, we were flabbergasted, to say the least, because it was certainly not what we had expected and it was not what we were predicting and it was not what we believed wee happening.

NARRATOR:
Travis Kuykendall is chief of the DEA office in El Paso.

Mr. KUYKENDALL:
That organization, by their own documents, were responsible for importing over 250 tons of cocaine through EL Paso and the majority of it going to the Los Angeles area, with some going to Dallas and other areas. But it indicated over 250 tons in total.

NARRATOR:
How much is 250 tons? Using government figures, that amount would have been at least 36 percent of all the cocaine brought into the country. If it seems odd that the Tapia family could have smuggled this much cocaine, it is doubly so considering how much information authorities had. From an anonymous informant, the DEA in EL Paso had specific details about the smuggling operation 11 months before the Los Angeles bust. And this affidavit filed in a U.S. district court showed what the informant had disclosed: the names of two of the smugglers, the method of shipment-tractor-trailers with a secret compartment-and the location of the smugglers' El Paso warehouse-the names, the method and the location. The information was specific and accurate, yet the DEA did not open an investigate ion for nine months. No alert was ever given to checkpoint inspectors or to the Customs officials on EL Paso's bridges.

Ms. HALLETT:
Well, first of all, I know that they were not sharing that information with Customs, and shame on them. The country, the United States of America, is the big loser if any agency does not share that information with a sister agency, and particularly an agency that is responsible for the interdiction of those drugs at the border.

NARRATOR:
When reached by FRONTLINE, the DEA agent who was given the leads said she had been too busy to check them out and she had been unable to convince her supervisor to provide help. The DEA now says the agent did not develop the leads enough to warrant help. Travis Kuykendall took over the EL Paso office a year later.

Mr. KUYKENDALL:
I think we have a problem with the incredible amount of drugs that's being moved and the minimum number- amount of resources that we have to dedicate against it. The office, the DEA office, U.S. Customs, border patrol all during these periods of time were making many seizures and many arrests of drug traffickers. We just didn't catch this organization.

NARRATOR:
Besides the failure to act on the informant's leads, there are questions about the performance of Customs inspectors. FRONTLINE has learned Customs and the Justice Department have investigated allegations of corruption on the bridges. And in sworn court testimony, the Tapia family's bookkeeper, Rene Magallanes, stated that the Tapias had been paying bribes to U.S. Customs officials. Magallanes told investigators that the pay-off was $10,000 per load. Customs denies any of its agents were involved.

Ms. HALLETT:
The investigation, among other things, pointed out that there was no corruption involved on the part of Customs that would have led to those amounts of cocaine coming into the United States.

NARRATOR:
But Customs says that any further details about what its investigation uncovered are confidential. Questions remain about why no shipments were stopped.

Mr. MacTAGGART:
They either were extraordinarily lucky or apparently they had some help somewhere. El Paso's only one of 28 ports of entry between Mexico and the United States. So, yeah, again, I think bridges are-they're-frankly, they are fertile ground for smuggling. It's one of the most efficient, effective ways in which you can smuggle almost anything into the United States.

NARRATOR:
In El Paso, the inspectors' jobs will only get tougher if, as expected, trade grows between Mexico and the United States.

BORDER GUARD:
Is this your car sir?

DRIVER:
[unintelligible]

BORDER GUARD:
What are you bringing from Mexico today?

DRIVER:
Nothing

BORDER GUARD:
Thank you, sir.

DRIVER:
Thank you.

NARRATOR:
Our final stop on the border was Candelaria, Texas, a small town located on the Rio Grande, 46 miles from the closest border station. The town has one general store, one public telephone and a year round population of about 60 people. The Rio Grande is a small stream here and a footbridge crosses it just south of town. Here there are no immigration agents checking nationality, no Customs officials sifting through people's possessions. One local cowboy successfully exploited the open border by repeatedly driving his pickup truck across the Rio Grande.

TV REPORTER:
An expressionless Glyn Robert Chambers filed into his detention hearing this morning, led by U.S. Marshals. The 37-year-old Alpine man is charged with possession and intent to deliver over a ton of cocaine.

NARRATOR:
He became the biggest drug smuggler ever arrested in the Big Bend. Arrested with Chambers was a partner, Rick Thompson. He had only recently been lured into the Chambers operation by the enormous profits to be had, $1 million per truckload.

Sheriff RICK THOMPSON, Presidio County:
[1988 Customs public service announcement] Another drug smuggler makes his way to the state penitentiary. Hello, folks. I'm Rick Thompson, sheriff of Presidio County. I'm working with the U.S. Customs Service to lock up drug smugglers. You all can help us ruin a drug smuggler's whole day.

NARRATOR:
Sheriff Thompson was by no means the first Texas sheriff busted for drug running, but he was one of the most prominent.

Sheriff THOMPSON:
You all can help. Remember: 1-800-BEALERT.

JACK McNAMARA:
Rick Thompson had the reputation of being a great drug buster and a great lawman.

NARRATOR:
Jack McNamara is the editor of a local newspaper.

Mr. McNAMARA:
Thompson was no tinhorn Texas sheriff. He was a powerful, politically-impressive man within Texas law enforcement. He was a past president of the Sheriffs Association of Texas.

NARRATOR:
Thompson also sat on the board of the West Texas Multi-County Narcotics Task Force and he was politically well connected. He used to go hunting with a former U.S. commissioner of Customs.

Things are back to normal in the Big Bend area now that the sheriff and Robert Chambers have been sentenced to life in prison. Law enforcement got lucky this time. No aerostat or high-speed boat, no dope-sniffing dog or U.S. Marines stopped Chambers and Thompson. They were caught only because a former partner decided to talk. He told us the arrests probably won't change much.

FORMER PARTNER:
As long as there's this much money in drugs, there'll be another way to get it across, whether it's in the Big Bend area of Texas, whether it's in Florida, whether it's in California or whether they take it to Canada and smuggle it back down through the northern part. As long as there's this amount of money, there will always be a way to get it in.

Mr. ROSENBLOOM:
Will this plug this hole, this pipeline through the Big Bend for drug smuggling?

Mr. McNAMARA:
Heavens, no. Where they got it is still in place. They got it in Mexico and they're looking for somebody to run it through here again. There is a 500-year tradition of smuggling in this area and I guarantee you, the day after Robert Chambers and Rick Thompson fell, somebody stood up and said, "It's my turn. Let's go."

NARRATOR:
The cocaine keeps coming in, in spite of government spending of about $2 billion a year on border interdiction. The Pentagon has estimated that to seal all U.S. borders would cost $19 billion in the first year and require 60,000 foot soldiers. The new administration and the new Congress will have to decide if the war is winnable and at what cost.

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