MIA security a 'balancing act' post-9/11

Sep. 11--Cocaine mules seem almost quaint these days.

Open a foreign traveler's suitcase at South Florida's largest airport and you might find endangered sea horses from Ecuador, cash stashed in Brazilian Bibles or human skulls from Haiti. Open the traveler's passport or visa and you might discover it's fake.

"It happens every day, several times a day," said Moises Pacheco, a station chief for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Miami International Airport. "When we open one of these cases, it turns into a Pandora's box."

Six years after 9/11, the public seems mainly worried about the safety of departing flights and pays far less attention to the surge of arriving foreign travelers who could pose a security threat. At MIA, about 7.6 million people arrived from South America, Europe and other continents during the past year. That's 21,000 passengers a day.

Customs and Border Protection, with its bustling baggage and passport sections at MIA, acts like a roadblock at one of the country's busiest points of entry. To Harold Woodward, director of the agency's Miami field operations, the challenge is a "balancing act" -- keeping the public safe from a terrorism threat while moving heavy traffic through both Miami-Dade County's airport and seaport.

"We don't have the option of closing the door," he said during a tour of Customs' facilities. "We have to keep the system going."

With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, parts of the old Customs and Immigration services were merged. Billions have been spent on counterterrorism to prevent the next al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil.

One Miami-based security expert said the new department should focus more on flights arriving from foreign countries.

"It's amusing that our emphasis is on departures," said Tom Cash, a former senior Drug Enforcement Administration official who heads the Miami office of Kroll Inc., a security risk consultant. "The threat to the United States is arriving on a daily basis. It's not departing."

ON TWO LEVELS

At MIA, Customs and Border Protection deploys hundreds of officers at two levels -- baggage and passport controls -- to make sure no one dangerous sneaks in.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which involved several weapon-wielding Islamic extremists who overstayed their visas, Homeland Security officials and other federal agency chiefs say they have developed more comprehensive "watch lists" to share with one another. They also coordinate more information with law enforcement agencies such as the FBI on fugitives, both U.S. and foreign nationals.

Before flights depart from foreign cities, airlines must turn over passenger manifests to Customs officials.

"We start the process when the passengers are well offshore," said Rafael Henry, a chief officer at Customs and Border Protection, noting that if a known criminal suspect is on board a commercial flight, federal authorities will intercept the suspect at the arriving gate. Recently, U.S. marshals escorted an accused sex offender on a flight from Panama via Miami to New Jersey.

Once foreign travelers disembark at MIA, they are sorted into two categories -- U.S. citizens and all others -- on the third floor of Concourse E. Officers, using computer databases and human instincts, each review hundreds of foreign nationals daily.

People suspected of trying to sneak into the country without proper papers are sent to a secondary inspection. Customs and Border Protection officers pose more questions and sometimes run fingerprint checks through an FBI database.

In one case, a Latin American woman with a criminal record used her twin sister's name and passport to enter the country. A fingerprint check revealed her identity.

Overall, authorities intercept about 1,800 foreign travelers a year for secondary inspections. They are either returned home, allowed into the country or arrested. Some may apply for political asylum.

The baggage-control section at MIA is the other half of the Customs picture.

In the bowels of Concourse E, officers routinely target luggage carried on "suspect" flights from Colombia, Venezuela and other South American countries known for narcotics smuggling. Sometimes, the officers receive intelligence about a suspect on a particular flight. Most of the time, a flight's point of departure is enough to warrant a thorough search.

On a July afternoon, a conveyor belt carries a stream of large, black suitcases through an X-ray. The officers, wearing black and white gloves, are looking for "anomalies" on the images. They place the bags on a round wooden table and search through passengers' belongings. Sniffing dogs from K-9 units assist them.

"It's part of our routine that we hit high-risk countries and monitor them on a sporadic basis," said George Dickinson, Customs and Border Protection's chief of enforcement at the airport.

On this particular day, they don't stumble upon any narcotics or other contraband. Asked if his crew has ever found any terrorism-related evidence, such as weapons of mass destruction, Dickinson answered no.

ILLEGAL GOODS

Normally, when foreign travelers get caught carrying illegal goods, they're stopped in the Customs baggage section on the first floor of Concourse E. On Thursday, for instance, a man traveling alone was stopped as he tried to roll four large suitcases through the area. Inside were hundreds of little bags containing endangered sea horses and shark fins from Ecuador.

The perpetrator was a U.S. citizen on his way to San Francisco. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating the case.

In January, two Brazilian evangelical church leaders were busted at MIA for smuggling $56,000 in a Bible, their teenage son's backpack and other secret places in their luggage. Last month, the couple, who have a Boca Raton home, were sentenced to five months in prison followed by five months of house arrest.

Last summer, a Haitian man tried to bring human skulls from Haiti to Miami. Authorities suspected they might be linked to a homicide, but later learned the skulls were family members' remains.

MIA's biggest problem? Prohibited food that may be carrying disease or pests. Foreign nationals often try to bring such food into the country, sometimes as gifts.

Customs has a "cutting room" where officers stockpile all kinds of illegal foods: Spanish hams, Peruvian eggs, Jamaican sugar cane.

"Everything on this table is not allowed," said Ellen Ingber, a Customs agriculture specialist. "And all of it is going to be cut up."

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