Today, we begin on the Southern U.S. border, where immigration policy disagreements continue as we approach the 2020 election. From miles of new border wall, to coronavirus travel restriction, a lot stands to impact illegal border activity. We went south to the Mexican border in California and found that some drug smuggling has spiked in a surprising way, but there’s also been a remarkable drop you probably haven’t heard much about in terms of illegal human trafficking.
Sharyl: Horse patrols might not be the first thing you think of when it comes to border enforcement but for the past five months, the San Diego sector has been stepping up patrols like these along the California coastline, where criminal cartels feed a steady stream of human and drug smuggling.
Jamie Cluff: The horse patrol has been around the patrol since 1924, on and off. The horses can get us to areas where we can't go, not even on ATVs. We can get them into environmentally sensitive areas.
Sharyl: I’m riding with border patrol’s Jamie Cluff.
Sharyl: Can you tell me a little bit about the place where we are right now to set the scene for people, right on the border, basically?
Cluff: We're right up against the border with Tijuana, Mexico.
Sharyl: Right behind you is the wall?
Cluff: That is correct.
Sharyl: What problems do you see along this section?
Cluff: Well I mean, we're right on the ocean. So we do get a lot of watercraft that comes around or we get people that swim around. So we do patrol the beaches.
Sharyl: Maritime smuggling has become commonplace. Over the past two years, agents have arrested more than 1,000 people related to ocean smuggling in this area. They’ve seized more than 25,000 pounds of drugs and other contraband.
(video shows photo of broken surfboard)
This creative invention known to be used by traffickers was found on the beach, it’s a hollowed out motorized surfboard.
Agents recently intercepted a small fishing boat with 19 illegal immigrants on board.
(video shows photo of capsized boat)
This capsized boat was carrying 14 illegal immigrants and 82 pounds of highly addictive meth.
(video shows photos of boat and cases of marijuana and meth)
And this boat crossed into the U.S. containing 761 pounds of marijuana and 64 pounds of meth.
Despite travel restrictions due to coronavirus, customs and border protection reported a national increase in drug seizures from April to May. Cocaine interdictions more than doubled. Methamphetamine seizures rose 66 percent. Marijuana seizures were up nearly 35 percent and seizures of the opioid fentanyl, up 11 percent.
In California, recreational pot has been legal since January 2018. But officials say illegal pot trafficking is on the rise.
In 2019, agents in this sector confiscated three thousand two hundred pounds of weed.
But through September 8th, of this year, they seized triple that amount, more than 10,000 pounds.
(video shows photo of cases stuffed with marijuana)
In this seizure, furniture stuffed with 2,400 pounds of marijuana worth nearly a million dollars.
Sharyl: We’re in California along the Mexican border about 10 miles in from the Pacific ocean. Tijuana is the city right on the other side in Mexico and this is part of 14 miles of new border wall build in 2018. It ends in a mountainous area about four miles up the road and border patrol says as the city of Tijuana has expanded this way, there’s been more illegal traffic and more need to expand the barriers.
Carlos Silva: We're here, we're at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, it's the U.S. largest or the largest border crossing in the world.
Sharyl: Carlos Silva is an Assistant Director at Customs and Border Protection.
Sharyl: At the time we're taping this interview or recording it, we're in the middle of the COVID mess. There’s traffic, as far as the eye can see, does that mean that traffic is still coming and going, you know pretty regularly from Mexico into the U.S.?
Silva: It is coming and going regularly, although it is at a reduced level from what we see prior-COVID. Currently, we have an essential travel order at this time, so only U.S. citizens returning and the resident aliens returning are users right now. So, typically this line here would be longer on most days.
Sharyl: That means even with coronavirus, there’s a steady stream of suspicious and illegal activity.
(video shows footage of vehicle)
Silva: This vehicle here was intercepted in our pre-primary area. So, when they started looking physically at the vehicle, they saw that there was tampering signs on the trunk lid area. And when they peered into that, they were able to see packages. Turns out the packages contained methamphetamine, 23 kilograms of that.
Sharyl: So, it was in here?
Silva: These packages were contained in this area.
Sharyl: With the help of canine units and technology, agents expose drugs hidden in all kinds of creative ways. Recent finds include:
$97-thousand dollars’ worth of meth stuffed in doors and panels of a car.
Cocaine worth more than $650,000 in boxes embedded in the seats of a truck.
41 pounds of meth hidden in a gas tank.
Liquid meth disguised in transmission fluid and coolant containers.
They even rescued this teenager stuffed in the dashboard compartment of a car.
(video shows footage of underground tunnel)
Underground smuggling remains an issue, too. Earlier this year agents in the San Diego sector uncovered the longest known cross-border tunnel. It’s seventy feet below the surface, stretching more than three-quarters of a mile. It was housed with an extensive rail system, ventilation, high voltage electrical cables and an elevator.
Despite the many challenges, we found that recent efforts to step up border enforcement may be having an impact in terms of human smuggling. Even before coronavirus, the number of people caught crossing illegally into the U.S. was shaping up to be substantially lower than last year
In fiscal year 2017 customs and border protection reported more than 415-thousand apprehensions.
By 2019, that number had more than doubled to over 977-thousand with all-time records set for number of non-Mexicans, family units and unaccompanied children. But through August this year, with just 1 month left in the fiscal year, agents reported picking up fewer than 400-thousand people.
(video shows footage of border wall on beach)
This spot on the beach where we are today became famous in November 2018, at the start of a big surge in illegal immigration.
Illegal immigrants were shown on national TV climbing the border fence, sitting on it, even cutting a hole in it and crawling through.
Cluff: It was happening all along the border and our infrastructure and our agents did a great job under the circumstances that we were working under.
Sharyl: Since then, the old wall has been replaced with a new barrier system that includes double fencing and there have been no masses of people climbing over or cutting through.
Cluff: Our traffic levels have greatly decreased, you know the infrastructure that has been put in place has worked for this particular area. It changes all the time. We'll get large groups for a period amount of time and they'll change their tactics, they go somewhere else, so we just adjust to the trends.
ICE just finished a national campaign to arrest more than 2,000 illegal immigrants, most of them had a prior criminal charge or conviction including for assault and domestic violence.