How tech protects the world's busiest border crossing

Thousands cross daily between Mexico and the U.S. at the San Ysidro port of entry. Most are law-abiding, but many are smugglers. CNET Road Trip 2012 checked out the tech used to stop them.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
A combination of technology and astute observation helped U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers catch a man trying to smuggle more than 38 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. Customs and Border Protection

SAN YSIDRO, Calif.--They were hidden in the gas tank -- 17 tightly-wrapped packages of marijuana weighing in at 38.44 pounds.

The car was nondescript, a green 1999 Mazda 626. The driver was a male 50-year-old Mexican national, a resident of Tijuana who had presumably been hoping to make it into California without being stopped.

Tech vs. smugglers face off at busiest U.S. border crossing (pictures)

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Instead, the man got caught with the massive haul of pot, snared by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers here at the world's busiest border crossing using several tools in their arsenal -- some high-tech, some very low-tech -- to find the contraband.

I had come to San Ysidro, the main port of entry linking Tijuana to San Diego, as part of Road Trip 2012. Earlier in the month, I had spent a day with the U.S. Border Patrol in Arizona, learning about how the government uses technology to protect the hundreds of miles of that state's frontier with Mexico. Now, I was here in California, finding out about how tech is used at an actual border crossing. Together, these are two sides of the same coin.

In Arizona, anyone Border Patrol agents detect crossing the frontier is breaking the law -- it is illegal to cross anywhere except at a legitimate port of entry, whether you're a U.S. citizen or not.

But at San Ysidro, the vast majority of people coming through are completely law-abiding and are trying to make their way into the U.S. for any number of reasons. And CBP officers have to find a way to catch the bad guys while not adding too much waiting time for average travelers who are already spending three hours or more in line. And that, of course, is where the agency's many tools come into play.

Mix of tech and non-tech
As is the case for the Border Patrol, CBP relies on a mixture of high-tech and low-tech to keep the traffic flowing through the San Ysidro port of entry while still trying to catch smugglers of everything from drugs to illegal immigrants, those bringing in large amounts of undeclared merchandise, prohibited agricultural items, and even potential terrorists. All told, officers are charged with enforcing hundreds of laws for dozens of agencies.

Tech looms large in Arizona border battle with smugglers (pictures)

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It starts with the Anti-Terrorism-Contraband Enforcement Team (AT-CET), a group of officers who walk around the "pre-primary" area where hundreds of cars queue up in advance of going through primary inspection. These officers are looking for anything out of the ordinary, trying to spot people they think are committing crimes. They may have dogs with them capable of detecting everything from narcotics to hidden people to currency to firearms. Or, they may not be there at all. They try to mix it up so spotters looking for patterns can't find them.

As cars advance closer to the primary inspection booths, the technology starts to come into play.

Among the first is what's known as RPM, or the radiation portal monitor system. These tall yellow boxes mounted on both sides of every lane of traffic are designed to read any type of energy passing by. The idea is to identify any radioactive isotope. Of course, many people legitimately cause the system to issue an alarm, given that residual chemicals from chemotherapy and certain other medical procedures commonly performed in Mexico can set it off. But there are also devices designed to identify the type of material that set off the alarm, which are supposed to allow officers to distinguish between someone who's got dangerous intent and someone who doesn't.

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Another piece of technology is something called a "Buster," a small hand-held device carried by some officers that lets them inspect a vehicle for the existence of any particularly dense material, such as metal, or something organic. It works much like a stud-finder. Watching an AT-CET officer run it alongside a car's body panels and its tires, I understand she's looking for anything hidden there. Nothing shows up, so she lets the car proceed.

At the same time, every car that approaches primary has its license plate photographed. This allows the primary inspection officer to have a good deal of information -- sourced up from a number of law enforcement agencies -- about the car already on their computer screen when it pulls up.

And there's also an RFID card reader available on most lanes that scans anyone's U.S. Passport card, border-crossing card (available to non-citizens on B1 or B2 visas, and allowing travel for up to 30 days within 25 miles of the border), or SENTRI card, and then feeding information about the person to the primary officer.

Tools like these are used to help quickly screen traffic as it approaches primary. That way, primary inspection officers can cut down on what they have to do when a car arrives, and can often already know a great deal about a person. This is all about moving people through faster.

Indeed, the SENTRI system, part of the Trusted Traveler program, makes it possible for frequent travelers who are willing to submit to a background check, a personal interview, and a car inspection to speed through ports of entry in just minutes. And because there are many people with these cards, there are quite a number of lanes available exclusively to those travelers at any given time.

38 pounds of pot
For the driver of the 1999 Mazda 626, this had not been his lucky day. According to Customs and Border Protection, a primary inspection officer noticed that the man was acting nervous, and sent him to secondary inspection.

There, "a CBP officer with a narcotic detector dog screened the vehicle, and the canine alerted to the undercarriage. In addition a scan by an imaging device, similar to an X-ray, revealed anomalies with the gas tank. CBP officers found an access panel under the rear seat leading to a non-factory compartment in gas tank. Inside the gas tank, CBP officers found 17 packages of marijuana, weighing 38.44 pounds."

Officers found 17 packages of pot hidden inside the gas tank of a 1999 Mazda 626. Customs and Border Protection

The man was arrested is now facing charges.

At secondary, his car had been screened by a backscatter machine that can produce high-quality imagery of the driver and passenger sides of the vehicle, as well as its top and undercarriage, and which shows any kind of organic or metallic materials. This makes it easy for officers to spot anomalies -- things that shouldn't be there.

But officers can also use fiber optic "scopes" to look into very small spaces for contraband. These tiny cameras are capable of delivering an image in areas that would otherwise be difficult to reach. And, if an officer suspects someone might have some sort of radiological material, some carry hand-held personal radiation devices that can detect small amounts of radiation, and quickly determine how much is present.

In the case of the driver carrying the 38 pounds of pot, though, he had fallen victim to the CBP's use of tools across its tech spectrum -- from an officer trained to notice unusual behavior to a dog that smelled the drugs to a high-tech imaging system, and finally to a hands-on search. In the end, officers found the drugs, arrested the man, and moved on. It was a weekday morning, and there were hundreds more cars waiting to cross the border.