WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — All-day, everyday passenger and commercial vehicles line up for miles at dozens of U.S. ports of entry along the southwest border. For agents working to stop drugs from entering the country, it can feel like finding a needle in a haystack.
Customs and Border Protection can only stop what its agents can see. What isn't detected at the border makes its way into the interior where it fuels the multibillion-dollar cross-border drug trade and the worst drug overdose epidemic in U.S. history.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the majority of fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine is trafficked across the southwest border. It's primarily smuggled into the United States through legal ports of entry, meaning it comes within feet of a Customs and Border Protection officer. At the same time, CBP has acknowledged it currently scans only 2% of all private passenger vehicles and 16% of commercial vehicles at land borders.
That is about to change as the government and private sector work together to deploy the systems and technologies to give officers at the country's entry points total visibility—through steel, aluminum, and loads of cargo. This technology isn't years away, but months away.
By the start of 2020, CBP will begin installing and testing several X-ray imaging systems at ports along the southern border. The systems promise to provide officers and agents with a clearer view of what is crossing the border, so they can more easily detect drugs, weapons, cash and disrupt transnational criminal networks.
"We need to start closing those gaps, scanning more," said Robert Watt, CBP's director of the Non-Intrusive Inspection Division. Watt is in charge of acquiring and deploying the equipment and detection technologies for the nation's roughly 320 land, sea, air and rail ports.
TECHNOLOGY ARRIVING SOON
The biggest challenge at the southern border is that the sheer volume of traffic has made it impossible to inspect every vehicle. For example, at San Ysidro, the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere, roughly 70,000 vehicle passengers travel northbound from Mexico into the United States every day. A typical officer has less than 20 seconds to scrutinize a vehicle and determine whether to let it through or subject it to additional, secondary screening.
"It's a daunting task," Watt told Sinclair. Officers have to balance security against the demands of trade, try to prevent drugs and other contraband from entering the country without slowing cross-border trade and hurting the economy. "The better equipment we have out there, especially with all this new technology that's coming down the pike, we'll be doing a much better job than we're currently doing right now."
X-ray imaging technology has been used for years across the Department of Homeland Security to detect everything from drugs to explosives, in cargo, mail shipments, rail freight and at airports. At the southern border, that non-intrusive scanning technology has mostly been used during secondary inspections. Each day, a relatively small number of vehicles deemed suspicious or randomly selected are diverted to a holding area and run through a large portal.
Existing systems used in secondary screening employ both backscatter and transmission X-ray technologies. According to Watt, these systems are effective but because of their size, installing them at every port would likely halve the number of vehicle lanes. The effects on the economy would be felt immediately throughout North America.
One backscatter image from a recent drug bust, showed a passenger vehicle packed with 134 pounds of methamphetamine, 2.6 pounds of heroin and 4.94 pounds of fentanyl. Another massive haul was discovered by agents using an older transmission detector. The image showed the bulky outline of more than 10,0000 pounds of marijuana and 463 pounds of crystal meth stashed in the rear of a tractor-trailer carrying picture frames.
Even with the limited number of vehicle scans, Customs and Border Patrol agents seized, on average, more than 4,650 pounds of drugs each day last year. In 2019, agents have already seized 2,000 pounds of fentanyl, the potent drug responsible for more than half of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths and they are on track to seize more than 800 tons of other narcotics. Those numbers are expected to increase as demand for the drug grows and seizure tactics improve.
In the coming months, CBP will be completing several pilot programs to move the non-intrusive scanning technology from secondary inspections to the front line. Similar to the idea of an E-Z pass system, the scanners should keep traffic moving while generating a detailed image of the inside of every vehicle before it reaches the official checkpoint. In most cases, the pre-primary scan will give officers a significant head start on suspicious cargo.
According to Watt, by the end of the year, there will be a new scanning system in Anzalduas, Texas at the Hidalgo, Pharr port of entry for every passenger vehicle and another in Brownsville, Texas to scan every cargo vehicle.
The agency is also expected to finish work on a new command center at the World Trade Bridge in Laredo. The command center will receive real-time imaging data on all trucks entering and exiting the high-volume inspection station.
Finally, by early 2020, CBP will begin testing X-ray scanning systems from several top technology vendors. The systems will be installed at five small land ports along the border that have about four lanes of traffic. CBP will then test and assess which is the best system to handle large-scale, high-volume vehicle scanning.
SEIZURES 'MEASURED IN THE TONS OF DRUGS'
Viken Detection is one of the companies developing a full vehicle scanning portal for passenger vehicles at one of those border entry points.
"The goal for us would be to scan every vehicle that's going across the border," said Viken Detection CEO Jim Ryan. The mission is analogous to Transportation Security Administration scanning every person and piece of luggage that makes it onto an airplane as quickly as possible.
"Every vehicle will go through it quickly and you'll be able to see the entire vehicle," he said. "Once we get to that point we'll see the magnitude...the amounts of drugs that are coming across the border."
Viken's system employs backscatter technology, which requires little energy to generate an image. It also emits a very low dosage of radiation, making it safe for regular use in a passenger environment.
The company has already pioneered a handheld scanning device which is currently being used by several law enforcement agencies across the United States, including in what the DEA has designated High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. Ryan described the 8-pound HBI-120 as a "scaled-down" version of the full-vehicle portal that will soon be put to the test at the border.
In a demonstration, Ryan showed how the device can penetrate through up to 3 mm of steel, as well as aluminum panels and vehicle parts. The small device allows law enforcement officers to zero-in on areas of interest where traffickers may be concealing bundles of drugs or bricks of cash. Before X-ray imaging technology, it could take hours to physically dismantle a vehicle looking for compartments hidden deep inside the engine, in the transmission, inside transfer cases, underneath the vehicle or inside gas tanks. Now, a full interrogation of the vehicle can take a few minutes using the handheld device.
In the past month, a significant number of Viken's HBI-120s were deployed to the border where they are currently in use by CBP agents. According to Watt, officers have already made a number of seizures with it. Viken was awarded a $28.8 million contract with CBP in October for the devices.
About 500 of the instruments have been in wide deployment for about a year. According to Ryan, "Our seizures are measured in the tons of drugs and the millions of dollars in cash."
APPLICATIONS FROM THE LAW ENFORCEMENT PERSPECTIVE
Mike Tamez is one of the nation's top drug interdiction officers and currently works as part of a highway interdiction team in South Texas, about 60 miles from the southern border. In his position, he regularly interdicts loads of drugs that make it past Customs and Border Protection.
"It's not the individual agent's fault. The factors are just against him at those checkpoints and at those entry points," Tamez said. Referring to the massive flow of daily traffic across the border, he added, "The numbers are just astronomical."
Tamez has been training officers and using the HBI-120 for about a year. He said the scanning technology "has changed the game tremendously" for him and his officers.
In a recent stop, Tamez was given consent to search a passenger vehicle en route from Montamores, Mexico to Houston. In a 10-second scan of the vehicle using the HBI-120 imager, he and another officer discovered 8 kilos of crystal meth hidden in the car. Without the scanner, an officer may have spent hours physically dismantling the vehicle looking for hidden contraband.
The backscatter technology has also helped officers defeat a common smuggler tactic of hiding narcotics inside other organic materials, like gasoline. In another recent bust, Tamez was able to detect 100 lbs. of marijuana in a gas tank after a checkpoint stop.
The advantages of law enforcement officers having access to advanced imaging technologies are obvious when it comes to disrupting the drug trade. One advantage that is less obvious is officer safety.
"All you have to do is Google fentanyl and police officer and you're going to see countless stories and videos of police officers who were exposed to fentanyl....going down and they're having to bring them back," Tamez said.
About five years ago, Tamez was working with a partner to inspect the cargo space of an 18-wheeler that he suspected had a hidden compartment. Before the handheld X-ray imager, the only way to see if the compartment was loaded was to drill into it and insert a scope. Tamez got underneath the vehicle and drilled through the floor into the compartment, accidentally penetrating the contraband.
"As soon as I bring my drill out, cocaine powder just starts falling out," he said. "Now you apply that to today, right, what are we looking at? That much fentanyl goes airborne, I'm dead...the officers around me are dead."
While it's important for citizens to understand the tools available to law enforcement agencies, Tamez emphasized, "I want our officers to know that this device will make them safer."
DESIGNING A 'FUTURE-PROOF' BORDER SECURITY SYSTEM
In 2019, Congress appropriated $675 million for the Department of Homeland Security to install the non-intrusive inspection technology at pre-primary lanes. The appropriation was $631 million more than the White House's initial request and Congress' initial offer.
Given the size of the investment, Watts and vendors like Viken Detection are concerned about demonstrating it is worth the high cost.
"We appreciate all the support by Congress," Watt said. "We are getting the new equipment out there, we are testing it out there and I think you're going to see a big change." As the full-vehicle scanners go into place at the border, Watts' division will aim to deliver statistics to Congress on the numbers of seizures as CBP assesses the effectiveness of each system.
Ryan acknowledged that upgrading America's land ports with advanced imaging technology will be a significant, long-term investment. He emphasized that it must be "future-proof," in other words, adaptable to new threats and tactics.
"These portals will probably remain intact for 15 to 20 years, so they have to be upgradeable. They have to be future-proof; they have to have the latest technology," Ryan said.
In some cases, smugglers have already started to change their tactics to defeat X-ray technology. In response, Viken developed "different modalities of technologies" that not only generate images but alert agents to suspicious materials that might be present as part of a concealment tactic. That is the focus of the company's next-generation system.
CBP and private sector partners are also looking ahead to the possibilities of integrating artificial intelligence and machine learning into the image-based systems. "There's a lot of really great technology coming out. A lot in the artificial intelligence field that we can put on for our cameras to see if something is going on that shouldn't be going on," Watt said.
Through years of experience, well-trained officers become highly attuned to certain anomalies, whether it's an unusual mechanical configuration of a vehicle or an individual's behavior. It is possible to do something similar with artificial intelligence, by synthesizing the images generated by the scanning devices with information from technologies now in use, like biometrics, license plate readers, radio frequency identification (RFID) and other visual systems.
The challenge is being able to use that information in real time. "That's where I think AI and machine learning comes into play of how do we process all of this information and create a risk profile so the officer can take action," Ryan said. That may also involve building new sensors into scanning systems and creating a truly multilayered approach.
"I think it's only going to get better," Ryan said, emphasizing the breakthroughs in sensor technology, biometrics and artificial intelligence. "Those three things coming together are going to create an incredibly powerful tool for our law enforcement."