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...


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.

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