Trusted shippers program attracts drug smugglers

Published 24 November 2009

The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, or C-TPAT, program was supposed to list trusted shippers with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, so that these shippers’ trucks would have to spend less time at border checkpoints; trouble is, drug traffickers know this, and they use the system to smuggle their shipments into the United States

U.S. program that offers trusted trucking companies speedy passage across American borders has begun attracting just the sort of customers who place a premium on avoiding inspections: Mexican drug smugglers.

Most trucks enrolled in the program pause at the border for just twenty seconds before entering the United States, and nine out of 10 of them do so without anyone looking at their cargo.

Among the small fraction of trucks that are inspected, however, authorities have found multiple loads of contraband, including eight tons of marijuana seized during one week in April. Christopher Sherman writes that some experts now question whether the program makes sense at a time when drug traffickers are willing to do almost anything to smuggle their shipments into the United States.

The trusted-shipper system “just tells the bad guys who to target,” said Dave McIntyre, former director of the Integrative Center for Homeland Security at Texas A&M University.

The program works like this: Participating companies agree to adopt certain security measures in exchange for fast entry into the United States. They are required to put their employees through background checks, fence in their facilities and track their trucks. They also are asked to work with subcontractors who also have been certified under the program, which is run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency.

The government keeps the list of participants secret, citing national security and trade secrets. But some of the 9,500 companies who are part of the system advertise their membership to drum up business, making them targets for smugglers, who can then threaten drivers or offer them bribes.

More than half of all U.S. imports now come from companies in the program, called the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, or C-TPAT. Mexican trucking companies make up only 6 percent of global membership in the system, but they account for half of its 71 security violations during the past two years.

Sherman writes that Mexican trucking companies face higher scrutiny than others. They get a full customs inspection every year, instead of every three years like other participating companies. The most common contraband is marijuana, officials say.

In a 24-hour period in April, customs officers in Laredo found three tons of marijuana in trucks carrying auto parts across two different bridges. Five days after that, agents in El Paso, Texas, found more than four tons of marijuana in a tractor-trailer hauling auto parts.