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Many Drug Smugglers Being Set Free Along U.S./Mexico Border



More than 1,000 suspected drug smugglers along the Southwest border have been set free by U.S. law enforcement agencies even though they were arrested with substantial quantities of narcotics (H.G. Reza, "Drug Runners Arrested at Border Often Go Free," Los Angeles Times/Washington Edition, May 13, 1996, p. B1; Ronald J. Ostrow and H.G. Reza, "Reno Stands By Border Drug Policy," Los Angeles Times/Washington Edition, May 17, 1996, p. B; H.G. Reza, "Feinstein Plans Border Drug Crackdown," Los Angeles Times/Washington Edition, May 16, 1996, p. B1; Los Angeles Times, "Many drug suspects go free along US border," Boston Sunday Globe, May 12, 1996; Reuter, "Many drug smugglers being set free by U.S.," Rocky Mountain News, May 13, 1996, p. 25A).

Citing US Customs Service records, Border Patrol records and interviews with law enforcement officials, the Los Angeles Times reported in a May 12 article that about 2,300 suspected drug traffickers were taken into custody in the past year, but more than 25% were released and sent home to Mexico. Officials at the US attorney's office in San Diego confirm that they adopted a program in 1994 in which first-time offenders are given the option of being excluded from immigration into the U.S., pending an immigration hearing, or being prosecuted. Assistant US Attorney John Kramer said in an interview that immigration exclusion "is, in our opinion, a powerful prosecutorial tool."

The LA Times reported two cases in which suspects were deported after officials confiscated their drugs and vehicles. One involved a suspect with 32 pounds of methamphetamine, and the other with 37,000 Quaaluder tablets. Another defendant's attorney reported that his client, who was seized with 158 pounds of cocaine, was released and had charges against her dropped because there was no room at the federal jail. Most of the deported marijuana suspects were cases involving seizures of 50-300 pounds.

Officials stated that if suspected smugglers are arrested a second time within five years after the first arrest, the earlier charges are reinstated and they could be prosecuted for both offenses. However, the LA Times reported that some smugglers have been caught multiple times, even in the same week, and have not been jailed or prosecuted.

Authorities attribute their decision to the overcrowding of San Diego's federal jail and prosecutorial discretion aimed at going after large-scale smugglers. As the government augmented its narcotics interdiction efforts during Operation Hard Line, it increased total drug seizures last year by 25% and raised the threshold for drug prosecutions. "Generally prosecution is deferred if the amount is below 125 pounds (of marijuana) or if the defendant is a Mexican citizen, or if in opinion of the prosecutor, it's not a strong case," said Jeff Casey, Customs deputy special agent in charge of San Diego, in an interview with the LA Times.

The controversy prompted Governor Pete Wilson to call on GOP leaders in Washington to conduct congressional hearings, and Bob Dole asked Attorney General Janet Reno to explain whether the Clinton administration supports the policy. In a May 16 statement, Reno defended the exclusion program contending that evidence in these cases was insufficient to support prosecution. "You know you're not going to make [the case] unless there's something else" to prove that the car's driver knew the drugs were there and intended to smuggle them, said Carl Stern, Reno's chief spokesman. He cited "familiar categories of cases", such as "hubcap" cases in which drugs are hidden inside the wheel. Stern also rejected the excuse of jail overcrowding. "It's not a question of limited jail space," he said. "We cannot find one case where that contributed to exclusion." Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh said Wilson was skeptical of Reno's claim that all 1,000 cases were not prosecuted due to insufficient evidence, especially given the amount of drugs in some seizures.

U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said they will introduce legislation that would hold the driver of a vehicle crossing the border responsible for insuring that no drugs are being transported, according to Boxer's spokesman David Sendretti. Feinstein said in a statement, "Prosecutors have told me that drivers of vehicles carrying drugs often plead ignorance to the presence of drugs, and that, without the ability to prove otherwise, it is difficult to prosecute these cases." She added, "Clearly that must change. It is unacceptable to have laws against drug smuggling and then simply slap traffickers on the wrist and send them home."