(4:39) The story of how the U.S. government bought some expensive "go fast" boats to
stop drug smugglers, but never caught anyone.
Original Air Date: February 2, 1993
Written and Produced by Jim Gilmore and Joe Rosenbloom III
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.
FRONTLINE investigates the government's multibillion-dollar efforts to close
Sen. DENNIS DeCONCINI (D-AZ):
That radar system detects anything that is moving, all the way from Florida to
CAROL HALLETT, Former Customs Commissioner:
For all intents and purposes, the air war has been won along the southern
JOE ROSENBLOOM, FRONTLINE:
Do you think it means that there's virtually no cocaine coming through here?
I don't think it means that at all.
Tonight on FRONTLINE, "What Happened to the Drug War?"
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
You might want to hold on. This is going to be a little rough.
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.
Well, that's a common occurrence. We get little kids that will play cat and
mouse with us all day long.
This time it was a false alarm.
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
That last 801 series was an intrusion, but turned back to Mexico.
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
Sen. DENNIS DeCONCINI (D-AZ):
The total funding authorized in Title III, which is the interdiction, is $678
million-at least a beginning.
The first dollars were appropriated as part of the Anti Drug Abuse Act of
The act authorized the government, our government, to create a frontline
defense, if you want to call it that, on the war on drugs.
Dennis DeConcini of Arizona was the leading advocate in the Senate for the
border interdiction provisions of the legislation.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
OK, the guy is going right to the van. He just jumped in and he's hauling
Close the door.
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
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?
Three and a half years now.
And in those three and a half years-
Oh, the three and a half years-well-
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.
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.
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
FRONTLINE reporter Joe Rosenbloom spoke to a Customs Blackhawk pilot who agreed
to an interview if his identity remained hidden.
[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
Frank Ault helped design the air interdiction program as a Customs adviser in
the mid-'80s. Once a believer, he is now a critic.
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.
Adding more helicopters might help, but the helicopters are only as good as the
radar network that supports them.
[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.
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.
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.
What if you were told they operated at 39 percent?
Well, there may be some particular one-
-that operates at 39.
I don't believe that's true.
At least, Customs informs me that they're operating at greater than that.
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.
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.
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
Smugglers can also profit from the camouflage of mountainous terrain. The
Baboquivari range south of the Port Huachuca aerostat in Arizona is one
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.
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.
Is that it right below us, there?
FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
That's it right there.
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.
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.
And now we're headed east. And about what is our altitude here?
FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
Oh, about 30 feet off the ground.
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.
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
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.
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.
Pretty easy to beat them?
FORMER DRUG SMUGGLER:
While smugglers can apparently beat the air interdiction system in Texas, back
in Washington many still support it. The reason may be politics.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is nothing illegal about these practices. In fact, they're quite
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You do what?
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.
In 1991 the program was scuttled. Commissioner Hallett maintained the program
had outlived its usefulness.
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.
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.
When was the last time you found cocaine on a small boat?
I don't recall ever catching cocaine on a small boat.
In the five years you've been here?
In the five years I've been here.
Is that surprising to you?
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
Do you think it means that there's virtually no cocaine coming through here?
I don't think that it means that at all.
Now Customs rarely uses the Blue Thunder except as a public relations
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
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.
Each night, patrols motor through the desert and set up surveillance positions,
but this highly-trained and well-equipped force had problems stalking their
Did you see anything and how far you went out-
Went out about half a mile, about three times in this area. We didn't see
anything. Just a lot of rabbits.
A lot of rabbits, huh?
Tonight, all that is caught in the night scope are other Marines.
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.
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
Hi. How're you doing? This your car, ma'am?
Yes, it is.
And what was the purpose of your visit to Mexico today?
I see. You live here in El Paso?
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
What sort of luck have you had? I mean, have you-have you hit on any drugs
lately at all or-
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
[September 29, 1989] From ABC, this is World News Tonight with Peter
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
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.
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.
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.
Travis Kuykendall is chief of the DEA office in El Paso.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
But Customs says that any further details about what its investigation
uncovered are confidential. Questions remain about why no shipments were
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.
In El Paso, the inspectors' jobs will only get tougher if, as expected, trade
grows between Mexico and the United States.
Is this your car sir?
What are you bringing from Mexico today?
Thank you, sir.
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
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.
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
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.
Sheriff Thompson was by no means the first Texas sheriff busted for drug
running, but he was one of the most prominent.
You all can help. Remember: 1-800-BEALERT.
Rick Thompson had the reputation of being a great drug buster and a great
Jack McNamara is the editor of a local newspaper.
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.
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.
drug warriors ·
$400bn business ·
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.
Will this plug this hole, this pipeline through the Big Bend for drug
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.
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.
npr reports ·
teacher's guide ·
tapes & transcripts ·
pbs online ·
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation.