More than 2.2 million pounds of illicit drugs worth $11 billion were seized last year by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, who also confiscated $52 million in cash at the nation’s seaports and land borders, CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said yesterday. “As our nation’s first line of defense against the terrorist threat, CBP is addressing its greatest priority mission, keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of our country,” Mr. Bonner said. “However, the traditional missions ... continue and are an important part of what we do, day in and day out, to secure America’s borders and protect Americans from harm.
“There is no doubt that illegal drug trafficking is a serious threat to our country’s security, and we are committed to do everything possible to disrupt this dangerous criminal enterprise,” he said. Mr. Bonner said CBP officers processed more than 401 million people last year, along with 109 million cars and 20 million commercial trucks and cargo containers — all subjected to increased questioning and inspection.
According to records, the officers made 17,716 marijuana seizures for 2.1 million pounds; 2,255 cocaine seizures for 90,305 pounds; 772 heroin seizures for 3,875 pounds; and 375 methamphetamine seizures for 3,134 pounds. There also were 1,337 currency seizures, totaling $52 million.
Mr. Bonner said that while it is not a crime to carry more than $10,000, it is a federal offense not to declare currency or monetary instruments totaling $10,000 or more to a CBP inspector upon entry or exit from the United States. Failure to do so, he said, can result in seizure of the currency or arrest.
Some of last year’s record seizures, according to the records:
The Bridge of the Americas in El Paso, Texas. Inspectors seized 10,101 pounds of marijuana worth $10 million hidden in a truck hauling artificial Christmas trees.
Laredo, Texas, port of entry. Inspectors and canine enforcement officers seized the largest marijuana load in the history of the port, a total of 9,331 pounds valued at $9.3 million discovered in a truck hauling a shipment of glass.
A south Texas checkpoint. Border Patrol agents discovered 4,520 pounds of marijuana worth $3.6 million and 360 pounds of cocaine worth $11 million hidden in a truck filled with sand.
Sumas, Wash., port of entry. Inspectors seized 1,435 pounds of marijuana, worth $3.5 million, from a double tractor-trailer.
CBP, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, also collected $24.7 billion in duties and importation fees during 2003 at the nation’s seaports and border crossings, nearly $1 billion more than 2002’s total of $23.8 billion. As a source of revenue for the federal government, CBP ranks second only to the Internal Revenue Service. Mr. Bonner said the value of imports to the United States during 2003 was $1.2 trillion, an increase over 2002’s $1.1 trillion total. He also said the total volume of international traffic processed by CBP for 2003 was 11.1 million truck containers with a value of $3.5 billion, 2.4 million rail containers worth $10.8 billion, and 9 million sea containers with a value of $344 billion. Import data also showed that Canada was the top trading partner of the United States with 15 percent of the total value of imports during 2003.
China was second with 11.5 percent, and Mexico third with 10.6 percent, he said.
In an annual trek, farmworkers are leaving the vegetable fields and citrus groves of southwest Florida to pressure one of the nation’s largest tomato buyers into helping improve their pay and working conditions.
As many as 100 vegetable pickers are heading for Kentucky and California this week to rally at Taco Bell and its corporate parent, Yum! Brands Inc.
Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell is a major buyer of Florida tomatoes, and the farmworkers want the fast-food chain and Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! to persuade Florida tomato growers to improve wages and conditions in this remote agricultural spot about 120 miles northwest of Miami. The farmworkers began a boycott of Taco Bell more than two years ago.
“We earn so little here and Taco Bell is a principle buyer of tomatoes,” said Marcelino Hernandez, a former tomato picker in Immokalee, a three-stoplight town of 20,000 people where Spanish is the dominant language and roosters roam the streets.
Taco Bell recently rewrote its code of conduct for its suppliers after being pressured by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group for the farmworkers, which is leading the boycott.
The code states that the company won’t tolerate the use of forced labor or physical intimidation of workers. The change comes in the wake of five cases of farmworker slavery by independent labor contractors that have been prosecuted in South Florida in the past six years.
Taco Bell senior vice president Jonathan Blum plans to meet with the farmworkers when they stop in Louisville later this week. But beyond the change in the code of conduct, there’s not much Taco Bell can do, said Laurie Schalow, a company spokeswoman.
“We can’t solve their labor issues,” Schalow said.
The predominantly Mexican and Guatemalan farmworkers earn about 45 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked, a wage they say hasn’t changed in 20 years. They would like to see that raised to 75 cents to 80 cents per bucket.
Farmworkers aren’t paid while they are driven by buses to fields as far as 150 miles away to pick tomatoes, peppers and other winter vegetables. Sometimes they are taken to the fields in the back of closed cargo trucks for rides that can last several hours.
“Working in the tomato fields is very difficult,” said Elias Lopez, a 19-year-old farmworker originally from Chiapas, Mexico.
Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, which represents Florida tomato growers, called the boycott misguided because “Taco Bell doesn’t know where its tomatoes come from.”
Many Florida tomato growers struggled in the 1990s, and several smaller growers got out of the business, after the North American Free Trade Agreement opened up the domestic market to Mexican tomatoes.
“How much (longer) can Florida tomato growers stay in business when they’re competing with other countries that are paying a lot less for their labor?” Gilmer said.
The farmworkers’ protest movement and the Taco Bell boycott have been getting national attention.
Three coalition leaders, Lucas Benitez, Julia Gabriel and Romeo Ramirez, recently received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Members of the Kennedy family are putting their muscle behind the boycott, and last November, the late U.S. attorney general’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, picketed outside a Washington area Taco Bell with a sign that said “Support Tomato Pickers.”
The National Council of Churches late last year voted to support the boycott, and the cause has been taken up by thousands of college students who have fought to remove Taco Bell restaurants on college campuses.