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...

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.


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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