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Mexico makes significant border changes

December 3, 2009 12:08:18 AM PST
It's being touted as a bold new attempt to choke off the supply of guns and cash that fuel Mexico's violent drug cartels. American authorities are hoping that it will cut the amount of drugs entering the U.S. by stopping drug traffickers from getting resupplied with money and weapons. Here is a look at some significant changes on the border, including one that will affect illegal crossers headed north.The U.S. Border Patrol has made some big changes on the edge of Southern California in hopes of shutting down a notorious smuggler's haven, and the results have been encouraging.

But there's been a big change on the Mexican side of the border, a new security measure that will, for the first time ever, electronically screen the vehicles headed into Mexico.

Scanners, scales and cameras might seem like standard measures of security on the border, but they are also the latest weapons in what's become a bloody and costly war against drug traffickers on both sides of the border. New additions to the Mexican ports of entry in Tijuana represent a huge shift in the way our southern neighbors are dealing with incoming traffic from the U.S.

"It's a modern system. It brings our border crossings into the modern age," said Mexican Customs agent Carlos Ramirez Escoto, in Spanish.

Escoto is the port administrator in Tijuana. He says the new security system at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa will help Mexican authorities detect drug money, weapons and other contraband that are smuggled into Mexico from the United States.

The Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, D.C., is praising the system as another layer of security that will help interrupt the deadly cycle that sends cash and guns to cartels in Mexico and drugs into the U.S.

DEA Special Agent Paul Knierim said, "The more you can do to create obstacles for the cartels to receive bulk cash and weapons, the better off we're going to be here. There's no question about that."

"It's a very important change, because it brings us new advances that will identify risk and help make our border a safer place. Obviously what we're trying to do is discourage guns or any kind of contraband," said Escoto, in Spanish. "We'll be able to share that information with authorities here in Mexico and our counterparts in the United States."

The system is called SIAVE, and the screening process should be familiar to anyone who has ever driven into an American port of entry.

First, vehicles are X-rayed, then weighed. The license plate is photographed and entered into a national database. If the light is green, the crosser enters. If the light turns red, they're sent to a specific inspector for a secondary inspection.

There's been widespread concern that this new system will only add to the already long wait times when it comes to entering Mexico. But officials say it's only adding an average of seven seconds per vehicle.

Not everyone agrees. During the system's initial test phase, some Mexican border-crossers have complained of long delays returning to Mexico.

"It's almost not even worth it," said one traveler. "You get so frustrated."

"We might not come as often, but sometimes you have no choice," said another traveler. "You just need to plan ahead."

Meanwhile, on the U.S. side of the border, the American government is putting the finishing touches on its latest Homeland Security Department project, a massive undertaking that's literally changed the local landscape.

"This project has made our job a lot safer," said U.S. Border Patrol Agent Jose Morales. "The road by itself, getting from one end to the other, it's a deterrent. Just the image of this is intimidating to a lot of people who think they could cross through here."

Morales is talking about the transformation of an area once known as "Smuggler's Gulch," a treacherous canyon along a busy Tijuana highway that was once all but impossible to patrol.

"Before this project was completed it was a very dangerous area," said Morales. "To get from one end to the other, you had to go down a winding dirt road, which in and of itself is very dangerous, especially when it rains, the road turns to mud and you could slide off."

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security launched an ambitious project to fill the canyon with dirt. They later build roads, installed security cameras and built a state-of-the-art fence that runs right into the Pacific Ocean.

"We scraped 1.3 million cubic yards off these mountains to fill in what used to be a hole here," said Morales.

So has it worked? The Border Patrol says the numbers speak for themselves. The amount of people arrested for crossing illegally has fallen significantly in the San Diego sector, down 22 percent from this time last year.

Much of that is due to improvements in infrastructure, but Morales says much of it is also due to more manpower. The sector now boasts 2,500 hundred agents, up from 1,500 four years ago.


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