CUSTOMS PLANS TO FIGHT DRUGS AT THE SOURCE

CUSTOMS PLANS TO FIGHT DRUGS AT THE SOURCE

U.S. Customs is squeezing drug smugglers even harder by going after them in foreign countries.

In its latest anti-narcotics program, the Americas Counter Smuggling Initiative, Customs enlists support of governments of seven Latin American countries to prevent smuggling of drugs into cargo bound for export.The initiative is designed to help those governments form partnerships with exporters and carriers. Teams of anti-smuggling experts from U.S. Customs will visit the countries and offer advice on how to secure manufacturing plants, trucks, ocean vessels, trains and aircraft so smugglers can't slip narcotics into commercial shipments.

Congress and the Clinton administration are pressuring Customs to do a better job of stopping narcotics. Last year, Customs made more seizures, but the total amount of drugs recovered was less than in 1996. Since Congress last year funded 657 additional Customs positions along the southern border, the results were embarrassing.month, acting Customs Commissioner Sam Banks announced an intensive anti-smuggling program, known as the Call to Action, for the southern tier, from Puerto Rico and Miami to San Diego.

IDEAS FROM OTHER PROGRAMS

The Americas Counter Smuggling Initiative carries the war against drugs down into Central and South America. It incorporates many of the same strategies Customs has deployed in its Super Carrier Initiative, which dates back to 1984, its Landborder Carrier Initiative and the Business Anti-Smuggling Coalition.

In those programs, Customs has worked with importers, exporters and carriers to prevent drug smuggling in cargo shipments. Customs routinely sends anti-narcotics experts to manufacturers and distribution warehouses to offer advice on securing their facilities. Standard techniques include better lighting, fences and background checks on employees.

The Americas Counter Smuggling Initiative takes the process a step further by enlisting the support of foreign governments. Whereas previous initiatives involved mostly U.S.-based companies with operations abroad, this effort targets foreign-based manufacturers, distributors and carriers.

The program enlists the support of Latin American governments, asking their law enforcement agencies to form partnerships with those manufacturers, distributors and carriers.

''What we're stressing is the fundamentals - the best practices businesses have developed for reducing the risk level of narcotics smuggling in commercial shipments,'' said Jayson Ahern, Customs' senior adviser on the Americas Counter Smuggling Initiative.

''This is a more comprehensive approach. It builds upon programs like the carrier initiatives and Business Anti-Smuggling Coalition,'' he said. Customs has pacts with Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela to participate. These nations were chosen initially because 82 percent of the narcotics that Customs seized from commercial shipments in the past two years originated from them, Mr. Ahern said.

PILOT TEAMS

Customs sent a pilot team of anti-smuggling experts to Venezuela in December. It soon will send teams to Colombia, Peru and Mexico, and a second team to Venezuela.

The goal is to enlist the participation of as many exporters and carriers as possible in those countries. Previous initiatives have produced impressive results. For example, carrier initiatives have been signed with 105 airlines, 854 trucking companies and railroads and 2,870 sea carriers. The latter group includes fishing fleets and other companies that carry out business on the water.

Customs is not giving subsidies to Latin American governments, Mr. Ahern said. Governments there have agreed to participate because they realize the importance of trade with the United States.

''They are making a sincere effort to root out drugs from commercial shipments. They want to keep the avenues of trade open,'' he said.

It isn't unusual for U.S. Customs to work with foreign customs agencies or governments on commercial matters such as coaching them in how to assign value to imports or how to set up automated clearance programs. ''Technical assistance by Customs is a longstanding practice,'' said Susan Ross, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in Customs and trade matters.

The fact that Customs is extending its efforts into anti-smuggling activities is logical, especially given the pressure it is under to produce results in the war against drugs, Ms. Ross said.

TRADE COMMUNITY SUPPORT

The U.S. trade community, as can be expected, supports this latest initiative. Importers and customs brokers say Customs' efforts will probably be transparent to the trade process. It should not result in delays at U.S. seaports or airports, because most of the activity will take place in the Latin American countries.

If the initiative is to be successful, though, foreign government agencies will need the same type of automated systems that are employed routinely by U.S. Customs, importers and customs brokers said. These systems help Customs expedite the movement of low-risk shipments and target the riskiest shipments.

''Automation is needed down there, too, because their governments also have limited manpower and resources,'' said Eugene Milosh, president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers.

The U.S. trade community continues to fear that, as Customs is pushed to develop one anti-smuggling initiative after another, Congress will have high expectations for increased drug seizures that Customs finds impossible to meet.