By Amy Taxin
LOS ANGELES — U.S. agents trying to stop contraband, arms and drug smuggling at the port of Los Angeles will soon get a new partner in their decades-old battle - an officer from Mexico.
The move is part of a larger effort at some of the nation's largest and busiest seaports to enlist officers from foreign countries. U.S. officials have invited officials from Argentina, Colombia and Mexico to join their anti-smuggling crackdowns.
They hope that bringing foreign intelligence stateside will help break down the close-knit networks smugglers use to ferry contraband across borders.
"We look at it as real-time, firsthand information sharing," said Tim Durst, chief of contraband smuggling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "It is one of the few ways to go back to the source of smuggling activity."
While working with foreign officers at U.S. seaports may yield valuable information, criminal justice experts say, the practice also raises a question about whether sharing intelligence with an officer from another country - particularly one notorious for corruption like Mexico - could compromise sensitive investigations.
U.S. authorities have worked closely with customs officials overseas on specific smuggling cases in the past, but experts say long-term partnerships and tight-knit networks are long overdue.
"Without that, you can't effectively break cases. You often don't understand the cultural context you're operating in, you don't have the linguistic knowledge," said Louise Shelley, executive director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University.
Smuggling enterprises surged after the fall of the Berlin Wall and with the rise of the Internet, with criminal groups that traded weapons, drugs and contraband forging cross-border connections far faster than law enforcement, experts say. Over the last four years, U.S. officials have sought to change that by having foreign law enforcement officers join special task forces set up along the country's borders.
In 2005, federal authorities and Mexican officials teamed up to crack down on a surge in drug-fueled violence in the border town of Laredo, Texas. Until then, U.S. officials would probe deaths on the American side of the border and contact attache offices in Monterrey or Mexico City to follow up on leads for crimes committed literally minutes away. Suspects would flee across the border, beyond the reach of U.S. officers.
As the combined murder rate in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo climbed to nearly one a day, they decided they needed to move quicker.
"We realized a lot of those individuals flee into the country and pretty much, they're beyond our reach," said Jerry Robinette, special agent-in-charge of ICE investigations in San Antonio.
In the ensuing years, the so-called Border Enforcement Security Task Force program was replicated elsewhere along the border with officers from local police and federal agencies joining together, along with Mexican and Canadian officials.
More recently, the program has been adapted to tackle smuggling in three of the country's major seaport complexes: Los Angeles-Long Beach, Miami and New York-Newark, N.J.
An Argentine agent has already been working with U.S. agents in the port of Miami since last year. Mexico plans to send a customs agent to the port of Los Angeles and Colombia plans to send three national police officers to U.S. ports to help investigate cocaine and heroin trafficking, Durst said.
One potential drawback to bringing foreign officers into the fold is the risk of corruption or leaks, experts said.
Jim Finckenauer, professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said such leaks were often a problem when U.S. agents worked with their foreign counterparts to help crack down on organized crime in Mexico and Russia.
"What you've got is a trade off: is the sharing (of intelligence) and likely payoff from the sharing worth the risk that you may be running by sharing information with someone who might do something else with it?" Finckenauer asked.
Durst said individual foreign officers are vetted before their arrival.
Foreign officers in the U.S. have different duties depending on their location and nationality.
For example, Mexican officials working in the Laredo task force have investigative powers but can't make arrests in the U.S. In Buffalo, N.Y., Canadian law enforcement officers have been given arrest authority to help the task force move more quickly.
In Miami, an Argentine customs official joined the port-based task force late last year and has been swapping information about suspicious cargo with federal agents. Since then, the Argentine customs service has seized motorcycles and parts worth $250,000, said Anthony Mangione, ICE's special agent-in-charge in Miami.
Now, Argentina has made similar arrangements with Chile and Paraguay, said Silvina Tirabassi, Argentina's director of customs. "The most modern, most effective way to work is through an exchange of customs agents," Tirabassi said in Spanish.
In Los Angeles, agents peer into cargo holds, engine rooms and bunks to ensure there are no stowaways and to look out for illegal goods. Only about 10 percent of an agent's work is this kind of on-ship inspection, task force supervisor Erik Cortes said, with the bulk of the work in investigations.
Durst hopes the Mexican customs officer can help with investigations to weed out contraband, weapons and drugs hidden in the voluminous trade between the two countries.
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"By working with our foreign partners, we can basically remove the border as a barrier," Durst said.