August 16, 2005

California drug busts soar despite Mexico crackdown

TIJUANA, Mexico -- Mexican drug cartels are sending ever greater quantities of narcotics through border crossings in southern California, despite a Mexican government crackdown and a bloody feud between rival drug gangs.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection sources said late on Monday that seizures of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and amphetamines at five border crossings in the state jumped nearly 50 percent to 140,384 pounds (63,677 kg) in the nine months to June over the same period a year earlier.

The surge comes despite a clampdown on drug gangs by the Mexican government, which has sent hundreds of troops and federal police officers to round up traffickers in the border region since January in an operation dubbed "Safe Mexico."

"For some reason the San Diego-Tijuana region is being targeted by the drug traffickers, and we're seeing a big surge in drug seizures," said Adele Fasano, the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection field director for San Diego.

Law enforcement sources said the cartels haul drug shipments of several tons to desert staging posts south of the California border, where they are broken down into smaller loads to hurl at busy border posts in a technique known as "shotgunning."

Customs agents working at the San Ysidro port, the world's busiest land crossing linking Tijuana and San Diego, said both the number and average size of drug loads seized there have increased in recent months.

Wily drug gangs are packing narcotics into gas tanks, door panels and car tires, and have even targeted tourist charter buses in a bid to ship larger loads of marijuana north in their cavernous floor and roof spaces.

U.S. law enforcement sources declined to speculate on reasons for the surge in trafficking through California, which comes as Mexican government efforts to curb drug gangs focus on Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande from Texas.

More than 110 people have been gunned down in Nuevo Laredo this year as cartels from the western state of Sinaloa battle the local Gulf cartel for control of a lucrative drug smuggling route.

Washington has issued repeated travel warnings about Mexican border towns this year, and briefly closed its consulate in Nuevo Laredo last month after rival cartels fought a pitched battle in the city with bazookas and machine guns.