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Smugglers Use SENTRI Drivers To Move Drugs Across San Diego Border

Photo credit: Gregory Bull / Associated Press

Cars wait to enter the United States from Tijuana through the San Ysidro Port of Entry, Dec. 3, 2014.

The most trusted border-crossers are unknowingly bringing illegal drugs into the United States at the San Diego border with Mexico.

Drug smugglers are turning "trusted travelers" into unwitting mules by placing powerful magnetic containers full of drugs under their cars while in Mexico, and then recovering the illegal cargo far from the view of border authorities in the United States.

One motorist spotted these containers after crossing into San Diego on Jan. 12 and thought it might be a bomb.

His call to police prompted an emergency response. More than 13 pounds of heroin were pulled from under the vehicle, a U.S. law enforcement official said. San Diego police said the drugs were packed inside six magnetized cylinders.

Tips For SENTRI Drivers

To avoid being used unwittingly as an international drug smuggler, authorities recommend taking these precautions:

• Check under your car before returning to the United States.

• Change your routes; don't keep the same travel habits.

• Remove your SENTRI pass sticker. It's no longer required.

The driver had just used a "trusted traveler" lane at the San Ysidro border crossing, said the official who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because some details of the case have not been made public.

Authorities have learned of at least three similar incidents in San Diego since then, all involving drivers enrolled in the popular SENTRI program, which stands for Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection.

There were 12.6 million SENTRI vehicle crossings in 2013, more than double the 5.9 million four years earlier.

The program enables hundreds of thousands of people who pass extensive background checks to whiz past inspectors with less scrutiny. Signing up can reduce rush-hour wait times from more than two hours to less than 15 minutes at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the nation's busiest land border crossing.

But like other pre-screening programs, there's a potential downside: The traveler can become a target, and such cases can be tricky for investigators when people caught with drugs claim they were planted.

Using magnets under cars isn't new, but this string of cases is unusual, said Pete Flores, field office director for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," Flores said. "Each change they make prompts a change from law enforcement, which in turn prompts them to again change their tactics."

The main targets are people who park for hours in Mexico and keep regular patterns, said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Smugglers track their movements on both sides of the border, figuring out their travel habits. It takes only seconds to attach and remove the magnetized containers.

"It's a concern for everyone, not as big a concern for me because I'm careful," said Aldo Vereo, a SENTRI user and office assistant at the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency who parks in a garage when home in Tijuana and varies his routes.

"Trusted travelers" were issued windshield decals for years, but they are no longer needed to identify vehicles approaching the inspection booths. New stickers haven't been issued since 2013.

Many haven't removed the stickers, which can make them a target. The Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce in San Diego said in a recent newsletter that decals should go.

"It's basically demonstrating that you are a SENTRI user," said Alejandra Mier y Teran, the chamber's executive director. "Criminals are savvy, and they know they are part of a program where they are not checked as much."

There have been 29 cases of motorists unknowingly carrying drugs under their cars in the San Diego area since ICE identified the trend in July 2011, including six drivers who made it past inspectors, Mack said.

Drivers who suspect something is amiss under their car should immediately report it to law enforcement to better show their innocence, authorities say.

So far, none of the unwitting drivers who have found drugs under their cars has been charged.

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