In the nearly four years since the September 11 attacks, officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have struggled with a conundrum: How to make U.S. borders secure without crippling the annual $2.3 trillion flow in international trade. Nowhere is that challenge more complex than along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, where tens of thousands of cargo trucks, railroad boxcars, passenger vehicles, and millions of pedestrians cross daily -- along with illegal immigrants and illicit drugs. A recent spate of bloody shootouts between rival drug trafficking gangs on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, along with the July 7 terrorist attacks in London, have raised fresh concerns about security on the border.
Officials admit the border remains a sieve for all sorts of contraband. Indeed, during a May visit to Arizona, which has become a favorite crossing point for illegal immigrants from all over Latin America, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff called the possibility of terrorists infiltrating the southern border a "critical" problem that still needs addressing.
But when it comes to the constant stream of commercial cargo crossing the border by truck and train, there has never been more vigilance -- or more cooperation. The U.S. and Mexico now exchange electronic data on every truck that goes across their common border -- something the U.S. and Canada still don't do. Many of the trucks and all of the railcars are X-rayed or scanned by gamma ray machines, with some pulled aside for physical inspections or to be sniffed by dogs capable of detecting drugs, explosives, and even currency. And thanks to the new technology, it has been possible to do all of this without significantly slowing commercial border traffic. Sure, say officials, it may still be possible for a terrorist to smuggle in a dirty bomb or biological warfare agent. But it is a lot harder than it was before 9/11. "We're very aware of the desire of terrorists to find vulnerability, which is why you see such an increase in assets going to the border," says Russ Knocke, spokesman for Homeland Security.
Typical of the stepped-up efforts to keep terrorists at bay is the operation at Laredo, Tex., and its twin city across the border, Nuevo Laredo. Because of its central location along Interstate 35, dubbed the NAFTA Highway because it connects Mexico's manufacturing centers to America's heartland, Laredo/Nuevo Laredo has become the main crossing point for such goods as appliances, auto parts, and computers heading north from Mexico. The area's three cargo bridges ferried some $52 billion worth of goods into the U.S. last year -- 38% of all Mexican exports to the U.S.
It can take as little as eight minutes or as long as several hours for vehicles to cross the border at Nuevo Laredo, depending on the traffic and on the type of cargo. But despite a host of new security measures, exporters, customs brokers, and freight companies agree that traffic is flowing just as smoothly now as it was before the terrorist attacks -- and in some cases faster. "It has gotten more difficult to enter the U.S. with cargo, but that doesn't mean traffic has slowed down," says Carlos Alberto Alvarez, president of the Nuevo Laredo Customs Agents Assn. Alvarez points out that while the drive between Nuevo Laredo and Laredo, normally 15 minutes by car, stretched to an hour immediately after the London attacks, things were back to normal by July 9.
Thanks to new technology and secure-cargo programs, U.S. Customs & Border Protection officials at Nuevo Laredo and other heavily trafficked crossings have a more complete picture than ever of who and what is coming through. Since 2002, all exporters from Mexico have been required to deliver cargo manifests electronically to U.S. customs officials, along with details on the driver and the trucking company, at least an hour before a shipment is due to cross the border. To ward off bioterror threats, shipments of agricultural products now require 24 hours' notice so that they can be flagged for inspection if warranted. Every railcar that enters and leaves the U.S. is scanned by $1.5 million gamma ray machines capable of penetrating the heavy steel containers -- while the cars are rolling. Tractor trailers pass at least two inspection checkpoints, with some of them undergoing screening by huge X-ray booms that can scan a trailer in just over a minute. The images are displayed on computer screens that are viewed by agents in adjacent white vans. Every truck, railcar, passenger vehicle, and pedestrian must go through a radiation detector -- an effort to detect radioactive materials that terrorists could fashion into a dirty bomb. "More and better technology has definitely been made available to us over the last four years, and it's a real key to our operations," says José R. Uribe, assistant port director for trade operations at the U.S. Customs & Border Protection office in Laredo.
Companies can also avail themselves of new programs to speed their products across the border. At Laredo and five other border crossings, a program called FAST (for Free and Secure Trade) allows cargo to travel through a dedicated express lane with just 30 minutes' prior notice. To qualify, Mexican exporters must submit to inspections by U.S. Customs agents to certify that their supply chain, manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping schemes are secure. So far, 318 companies, many of them multinationals with factories in Mexico, have been certified under FAST -- together they represent around one-third of all exports from Mexico to the U.S. One of the first companies to enroll in the program was auto-parts maker Delphi Corp. (DPH ) The Troy (Mich.) company depends on timely deliveries from its 51 plants in Mexico to keep its supply chain to U.S. auto factories humming.
10 MILLION NAMES
These efforts build on a decade of U.S.-Mexico cooperation under the North American Free Trade Agreement. But it took 9/11 to get both countries to shake off centuries of mutual suspicion and start sharing sensitive information. Since then, the two nations have been trading airline passenger lists. And Mexico's National Migration Institute, which 18 months ago began processing computerized records of nearly all international passengers arriving at key Mexican airports, is willing to share that fast-growing database of more than 10 million names with U.S. intelligence agencies. "We are doing much more than we were doing before 9/11," says Gerónimo Gutiérrez, Mexico's Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs for North America.
To further fortify the border, Homeland Security has budgeted $6.4 billion this year for customs and border protection, including new money designated to target high-risk cargo, conduct electronic surveillance, boost visitor screening programs and beef up the border. Whether that additional funding is enough to fortify the United States' southern flank cannot be known. But it's probably a step in the right direction. "There is no possibility of adopting a strategy that is 100% foolproof," says Gutiérrez. "Security is about identifying risks, assigning them probabilities, and acting to reduce those probabilities. And that is precisely what we're doing." Notwithstanding two centuries of hostile feelings on both sides of the border, that's something Mexico and the U.S. can agree on.
By Geri Smith in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico