9OYS Border Watch: Free Trade vs. National Security
Reporter: Steve Nuñez
NOGALES, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - In Nogales, the border city's economy almost exclusively depends on the flow of free trade that comes across the Mexico border. However, the Mariposa Port of Entry also remains a constant route for Mexican cartels to smuggle drugs, money and guns in and out of the United States.
Nine On Your Side recently got a rare look behind the scenes to show you how the Department of Homeland Security is answering the call to balance economic growth with tightened security.
On any given day, 5,000 vehicles and 1,300 big rigs cross into the U.S. From Mexico.
Last year alone, $17 billion in fresh produce came through the Nogales border.
Yet, Arizona's free flow of trade is constantly being threatened by drug cartels.
Eloy Cortez, Assistant Port Director, said this game of cat and mouse is played every single minute of every single day.
"It's difficult," said Cortez. "In many cases you're looking for an agricultural product within an agricultural product that being marijuana in a load of tomatoes."
Still, during 9 On Your Side's behind the scenes tour, it's quite obvious, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agents can't physically inspect every single big rig.
9 On Your Side Reporter Steve Nuñez asked: "Despite all of this security, how much do you really think gets by and gets past the officers?"
"I'd like to say very little," answered Cortez. "Obviously, I would be lying if I said absolutely nothing. We do the best we can as I've said."
So to balance trade with security, the Department of Homeland Security's expansion and modernization project that is currently underway promises to better secure the border by doubling the number of truck lanes, passenger lanes and larger inspection facilities to allow agents to conduct multiple layers of inspections.
Additional technology tools such radiation, license plate and passport readers will also allow agents to investigate patterns of frequency and time of crossings.
CBP Spokesperson Edith Serrano said the additional safeguards are also designed to protect the United States from potential terrorists.
Nuñez asked: "There's been concern over the years that terrorists will try to come in from Mexico in to the United States. Should residents be concerned about that?
"Is the possibility there? Possibly," responded Serrano. "However, like I said our officers are highly trained."
Nuñez asked: "Has there been an incident where a potential terrorist has tried to sneak through this port of entry?"
Serrano answered, "Not to my knowledge."
Nuñez asked: On a scale of 1 to 10, what are the chances if someone tried to come in that you'd catch them?"
"The chances of us catching them are very good," said Serrano.
Still, Jaime Chamberlain, who owns one of the larger produce businesses in Nogales, said it's also important to double the number of agents to man the additional lanes to protect economic security.
"The fact that we can cross our products more efficient and more effective makes us more competitive to other states that are also importing products from Mexico," said Chamberlain.
The new port of entry will also include inspections for those crossing into Mexico. That's because any time drugs are flowing north, money and guns are flowing south.
According to the CBP, officers seized nearly 128,000 pounds of narcotics and more than $12.2 million in undeclared currency in 2011. The agency would not provide specific statistics for seizures reported at the Mariposa Port of Entry.
The Mariposa Port of Entry expansion project is scheduled to be completed in two years.