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U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials inspect a ... U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials inspect a vehicle crossing into Mexico at Falfurrias, Texas (Getty Images).

You might think there are enough weapons, drugs and dollar bills in the United States, but you'd be surprised by what drivers attempt to take back and forth between the US and its neighboring countries, according to border officials in the US, Canada and Mexico.

And though border crossings are likely more mundane for the average motorist, what can we learn from the border patrol that would help us make for a better (and faster) trip? And how do professional smugglers do it? We take a look.  

Drug cartels and seizures

Chief Ruben Jauregui, the chief customs border protections officer at El Paso field office for Customs and Border Protection (CPB), says his team this week alone seized more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana coming into the U.S. from the Mexican border city of Juarez, much of it hidden in secret compartments around non-descript-looking vehicles.

In one example, he says a car contained more than 300 lbs of cannabis hidden under the floor of the vehicle.

Creative Hiding Places

Smugglers Are Trying To Hide Contraband In the Following Places (But Typically Fail Trying)
Table legs
Children's toys
Holiday candles
Commercial equipment
Spools of wire and cable
Surfboards and skateboards
Car parts

 

"[Smugglers use] just about any crevice of the vehicle you can think of," Jauregui said. This includes areas you'd never expect, including the engine bay, tires or even in the front or rear differential. Once a vehicle has been deemed suspect, a dog may be employed to sniff out drugs or currency and agents use density probes to determine the presence of hidden compartments. Once agents have pulled out the seats, floor and gotten into an engine or exhaust system, a vehicle can resemble an empty shell.

No warrants are required for CPB before they tear apart a vehicle.

Detection of a suspect vehicle takes into account the demeanor of the driver and passengers but also has a lot to do with CPB's knowledge of what looks right -- and what doesn't.

"A lot has to do with the interview of the suspect," Jauregui said. "But we're looking at the vehicle, also. Does it look normal, does it look like the way you'd buy it, are the compartments normal or are they modified? We know what a vehicle looks likes. [When] you see a modified vehicle you'll say, 'Hey, this isn't a normal vehicle.' Through time and experience we become experts."

CPB officials tell us that although marijuana is bulky and smelly by nature, smugglers are now using trash compactors to reduce the size of their illicit cargo. Marijuana, which comes into El Paso predominantly from the Chihuahua region of Mexico south of Juarez, is usually packed into 4 inch by 6-inch blocks that can be easily concealed.

While smugglers used to transport predominantly in large vehicles, they've taken to deploying new strategies. Now they're running drugs over the border in whatever vehicle they own, and might use decoys like family members or children to conceal the real purpose of their trip.

"It used to be a lone male in a large vehicle but now we're seeing [everything from] large motorcycles to bicycles," he said.

Driving To And From Mexico

Mexico is one of the main thoroughfares for drugs entering the United States. 90% of all cocaine entering the United States comes via Mexico and Central America.

Such a thoroughfare can create long lines for drivers, obviously. Customs and border officials tend to have a pretty good idea whom and what they're looking for, so don't expect you'll be accused of a crime just by traveling through the border. But, drivers can face a tangled web of documentation needed to cross the border and then safely re-enter the U.S.

Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, Americans driving to and from Mexico must carry an approved form of documentation like a passport, passport card or proper RFID (electronic chip)-enabled identification. Previously, a US citizen just needed documents proving identification and residency like a driver's license and birth certificate. The new rule, in place since June, is much more stringent. A passport is ideal, says Jackie Dizdul, a spokeswoman for US Borders and Protection in San Diego.

She says that drivers most often are surprised to find that certain foodstuffs and agricultural goods are forbidden at the border into Mexico and will be seized upon return to the United States. Common seized goods include fruit, vegetables, raw poultry and eggs.

"We're checking for bugs, pests and diseases," Dizdul said.

The most surprising things drivers tend to try to bring back are live animals. Dizdul reports everything from parakeets, chickens and turtles.

"We've seen all kinds," she said.

Generally, travelers are advised not to bring pets into Mexico. Dogs and cats can complicate a border trip, so make sure you have proof of vaccination for each. Other things that might attract the attention of Mexican border authorities include most fruit and vegetables, more than one laptop computer per car, prescription medicines without a prescription, and firearms (a permit for hunting rifles must be applied for in advance).

Declare It Or Lose It
"The most important thing to remember coming back in is to just declare whatever you are bringing back," Dizdul said. "As long as you declare everything you won't be hit with a fine."

She advises that travelers check the "know before you go list" (http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/vacation/kbyg/). Limits are placed on alcohol, tobacco, currency, firearms and pre-Columbian artifacts. No items made in Cuba are allowed to be brought through the border, regardless of where you purchased them.

Expensive durables, such as a laptop or watch, should be declared. Otherwise, you may end up paying duty on the good when bringing it back into the US. These goods can be registered with the Border Protection agency before you leave the US.

Prepare For Your Trip

Carry a passport and get it ready before you enter the border area
Keep all your sales slips for purchases made on your trip
Try to pack things you'll need to declare separately
Read and follow the signs in the arrival area

Get Your Paperwork In Order 
One of the most important things for any US driver entering Mexico is that most vehicle insurance policies only cover the United States. Marcy B., an adviser with travel services company Mexinsure, says that most US auto insurance policies will not cover you in Mexico.

"In Mexico, American insurance isn't valid, at least for liability," she said. Supplemental insurance, she says, can be bought online from a variety of companies generally for as little as five dollars per day, depending on the level of cover. A broker fee and Mexican tax are not included.

Also important for any driver is to ensure any incident or accident is reported to the Mexican authorities while in Mexico. "If you have Mexico insurance you have to--without any question--file a claim in Mexico, or your policy will not be valid."

Drivers heading across the border into Mexico also are required to carry vehicle registration in the driver's name, or a leasing contract if the vehicle does not belong to a driver. Drivers are advised to carry the $10 vehicle importation permit (available at the border) when continuing to travel in Mexico as it's useful in the case of a theft of or damage to a vehicle. US citizens also will need to carry a driver's license, an international credit card in the driver's name, and an immigration form (unless they are not traveling within 20 miles of the border, or traveling in Baja California).

To and from Canada

US Customs and Border Protections Chief Tom Schreiber says there are three key areas for drivers entering the US from Canada to consider: agricultural products, domestic animals and livestock, and contraband.

"[Most] folks know that narcotics are not legal," Schreiber said. "The gray areas are usually in foods. A chicken doesn't have a 'Product of Canada' label like a chair does -- nor does an orange. The hardest part is always in the agriculture arena. We have agriculture specialists and their main interest is in protecting the US food chain from pests and diseases from outside."

Canada's policy on pets is different from Mexico's, but drivers still need proof of shots and vaccinations.

"Most people travel with their pets," Schreiber said. A driver has to show proof that any dog over the age of three months has had their rabies shots.

"Most people take care of their pets as good as their children," he said. "We never see a dog foaming at the mouth or snapping and snarling. Pets aren't a real issue."

Contraband can be an issue at the Canada border, but not as often as in Mexico. But, those who attempt to do so tend to get creative just as the smugglers down south.

"People are generally aware they are not allowed to bring in illegal drugs," he said. "So, they hide them well. A narcotics detective dog is a tool for the line officer to use. If I have a suspicion that [a] story does not add up, I may have a belief the person is involved in narcotics trafficking and I may call in a sniffer dog."

Other tactics include use of fiber scopes and X-ray devices to check the car's body and interior for hidden compartments.

Is the driver liable if contraband is found on a passenger? The short answer is yes.

"The master of the conveyance is responsible for that conveyance and everything in it," Schreiber said. "But if I find the drugs in your pocket, I find you responsible and not the driver; in your suitcase it's your responsibility. We don't prosecute innocent parties, and most will take responsibility, hang their head and ask for leniency. If we do a civil penalty, where we just levy a penalty, we give them an opportunity to explain why [they attempted to carry contraband over the border]. We can lessen the penalty and we can go about our daily business.

"[For] folks [who] are professional smugglers, it's different," he said. "They are criminals committing a felony and deserve to be treated as such."

Faith St. John, of the Canada Border Services Agency, says entry to Canada is dependent on much the same criteria as entry to the US in terms of documents -- it also operates under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative -- but cautions that Canadian border officials have a right to question border-crossers on any criminal convictions they may have. A DUI on your record may be enough to prevent entry into Canada.

Cash must be reported as well.

"We have a requirement [that] you need to report currency of $10,000 or above," she said. "It's not illegal to bring in, you're not taxed, but you have to report it."

Guns are not allowed, but some non-restricted firearms are. U.S. citizens who have their guns seized at the border can sometimes reclaim their weapons, but not in all cases.

"We have a lot of Americans who don't realize that you can't bring your firearms."

While offenders may face prosecution and fines, visitors to Canada may temporarily import non-restricted firearms, such as hunting rifles and shotguns, if they complete a Non-Resident Firearm Declaration.

In most cases, a US citizen with valid auto insurance will be covered for their trip in Canada, but it's always recommended to check with your insurance company before you leave, and to carry valid insurance documents at all times.

If you're planning a trip across the border, make sure you have your documents ready and follow the No. 1 rule of travel: be patient and be flexible.
 

Read More:

- Confessions of an Auto Mechanic
- Confessions of a Car Insurance Agent
- Confessions of a Truck Driver


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