Image: Train enters seconday inspection
Mark Lambie  /  AP
A train enters a secondary inspection on April 17 after crossing into El Paso, Texas, from Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. After the train crosses the border, the Mexican owned locomotives detach and are replaced by American engines.
updated 6/15/2011 2:50:22 PM ET 2011-06-15T18:50:22

A border security program to X-ray every train rolling into the country has prompted as much as $400 million in fines against U.S. railroads, which are held responsible for the pungent bales of marijuana, tight bundles of cocaine, and anything else criminals cram into the boxcars and tankers as they clickety-clack through Mexico.

Union Pacific, the largest rail shipper on the U.S.-Mexico border and the largest recipient of fines, refuses to pay what now amounts to more than $388 million in fines, up from $37.5 million three years ago when the screening began. In federal litigation the railroad argues that it's being punished for something it cannot control: criminals stashing illegal drugs in rail cars in Mexico.

"Our actions should be applauded, not punished," said UP vice president Bob Grimaila. Union Pacific spends $3.6 million a year on its own police officers, and has spent another $72.5 million supporting federal efforts on the U.S.-Mexico border, building observation towers, training federal law enforcement officers, adding fencing and lighting at border crossings and developing computer profiles to identify drug traffickers.

The Justice Department also says UP, which owns 26 percent of Mexico's railroad Ferromex, is responsible for controlling the trains in Mexico. But the railroad says it cannot be expected to "send unarmed personnel into Mexico to battle Mexican drug cartels that maliciously murder and wage a war against the Mexican military."

Story: Feds watched as US guns were shipped to cartels

The railroad's argument may be gaining traction: The federal government recently signed a partial settlement with the railroad, releasing 10 seized rail cars in exchange for $40,000, and agreed to return to negotiations with the railroad, according to court records. There was no admission of wrongdoing, and Union Pacific agreed to remove any hidden compartments in the railcars.

In addition, the railroad's own commissioned police force is now working with Mexican law enforcement, tracking back illicit shipments to their source and targeting them. Mexican Army officials say that in March, using Union Pacific information and U.S.-provided screening machines, they seized 1,350 tons of marijuana in two different tank cars on trains en route from Aguaruto, Sinaloa to El Paso, Texas.

But motivated smugglers bypass the security. Mexico's powerful drug cartels, whose violence has cost 35,000 lives since late 2006, earn an estimated $25 billion a year selling drugs in the U.S. The 8,000 trains that enter and exit the U.S. each year through 8 border crossings offer a fast track to those lucrative profits.

All ocean, air and land transporters, including railroads, are subject to fines of $500 per ounce of marijuana and $1,000 per ounce of heroin or cocaine if U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents find the drugs in their cargo — this under a 1930 law requiring accurate manifest reports on everything aboard.

In congressional testimony in April, two different CBP assistant commissioners said they have the "capability" to screen 100 percent of rail traffic coming into the U.S. And last month, during President Obama's first trip to the border, his spokesman Jay Carney told reporters: "For the first time, we are screening 100 percent of southbound rail shipments to seize guns and money going south, even as we go after the drugs that are heading north."

Federal officials refuse to say if those inspections have any impact.

"We will not be able to provide you with a visit to a railcar inspection facility. We also will not be able to provide you with statistics or even anecdotal information on railcar seizures because of pending litigation," said spokesman William Brooks.

But calculations based on the fines indicate that more than 20 tons of marijuana has been found on Union Pacific trains in the past two years. And train screening in several Texas cities is hard to miss: Several times a day, two miles of dusty steel cars roll through low-level gamma ray radiation screening machines operating next to busy streets.

At the border, with brakes shrieking, rails screeching and whistles blasting, trains are pulled through a sliding, rusted gate into the U.S. with a Mexican locomotive that often has been traveling for days across Mexico's vast network of rail lines. About 15 feet into the U.S. the Mexican locomotive disconnects, a U.S. locomotive connects, and the train is pulled through the screening station.

Inside an adjacent white shed, federal agents, much like airport baggage screeners, stare at x-ray images of each car as they pass at about 5 mph. Images of the railcars, along with a digital video snapshot of each car's identification number, are saved.

"The idea is to keep that train moving, moving, moving, no stops," said Nelson Bolido, president of the Border Trade Alliance. "The last thing you want to do is stop in Mexico in the middle of a downtown. Cargo that's not moving is cargo at risk."

The images are distinct. A silhouette of a human body is fairly obvious. Drugs can be trickier if carefully packed into the skeleton of the rail car, especially those that have been modified with false walls or floors, or holes cut into center beams with welding torches.

While CBP agents scan the train, the Mexican crew, a few tired men in coveralls, heads bowed, hands in pockets, walk back through an open gate into Mexico. The locomotive remains in the U.S. awaiting a string of southbound cars. When the screening is finished, the train pulls forward, the border gate is closed and the U.S. rail company conducts its own screening using their own drug sniffing dogs and armed cops.

If they spot something, they report it to CBP — and often receive another fine.

With increased security at the border, some smugglers who use trains are taking a short detour. A few miles past one border screening station, gravel around the railroad tracks is littered with cut red plastic ties — each stamped with a serial number — that were once used to seal the cargo.

"What we are seeing is the illegal activity is going around the area where CBP is checking and walking through the desert and getting on a train a little further down the track," said Sheriff Arvin West of Hudspeth County, Texas.

There have been several high profile busts.

Last fall, for example, drug sniffing dogs alerted agents there was marijuana aboard a train from Mexico that was rolling slowly through the X-ray machine into Eagle Pass, Texas, according to federal court records. Agents delicately broke open sacks labeled "titanium pigments" and found a whopping 11 tons of marijuana worth $22 million. It was a huge find, and police wanted to know whose it was. A few weeks later, after following the train, police caught seven men whose clothes and skin were covered with red dust from the pigment that had been wrapped around the marijuana.

The investigation — called a controlled delivery — was a rare example of complex and expensive detective work between the railroad and federal agents. More common are simple seizures, like the June, 2010 discovery of 9,000 pounds of marijuana hidden in an open-top rail car — known as a gondola — at the Calexico, Calif. border crossing.

The X-ray image looked unusual, and drug sniffing dogs helped locate the marijuana, 352 wrapped packages under layers of glass, dirt and wood. Ten more packages hidden in two backpacks were found on a second rail car. The street value was estimated at $9 million.

CBP seized the narcotics. The shipment of glass, dirt and wood was sent back to Mexico.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Mexico violence

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  1. Doctors and nurses of the Medical Specialties Hospital hold a candlelight protest against violence in Mexico's Ciudad on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010. Last Dec. 2, Dr. Alberto Betancourt Rosales, a trauma and orthopedic specialist from this hospital, was kidnapped and his body was found two days later. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An investigative police officer stands by a vehicle that was allegedly abandoned by assailants suspected of shooting two of their fellow officers in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Dec. 6. One investigative police officer died in the shooting, according to police. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The bodies of three men lie together after being placed in the back of a funeral home's pick-up truck after they were killed by unidentified gunmen in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, Mexico, Dec. 5. At least 11 men were killed during the first weekend in December in drug cartel violence, authorities say. (Bernandino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A soldier escorts Edgar Jimenez Lugo alias "El Ponchis" as he is presented to the media in Cuernavaca, Dec. 3. Soldiers arrested the 14-year-old suspected drug gang hitman in central Mexico late Dec. 2 as he attempted to travel to the United States. Jimenez, a U.S. citizen, is believed to work for the South Pacific cartel in Morelos state, outside Mexico City and is allegedly part of a gang of teenagers committing brutal murders to eliminate rivals. (Margarito Perez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Members of a forensic team work in a mass grave Nov. 29 in Palomas in Chihuahua state, just across from the Big Bend National Park in Texas. Troops, acting on information obtained from several captured drug hitmen, dug out 18 bodies from 11 graves, police say. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexican federal police escort Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, 32, the alleged leader of the Aztecas cross-border drug gang, Nov. 28. The gang is suspected in dozens of killings, with Gallegos linked to last January's killing of 15 youths at a Ciudad Juarez party and in the March murder of a U.S. consulate employee in that city, regional security chief Luis Cardenas Palomino said. (Marco Ugarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Mexican soldier crouches inside a tunnel found under the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Nov. 26. U.S. border agents said they had found a half-mile-long tunnel under the border and seized a significant amount of marijuana at the San Diego area warehouse where it ended. That tunnel, which measured 1,800 feet and was equipped with a rail system, lighting and ventilation, yielded some 30 tons of marijuana, one of the largest such seizures on the border in recent years. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A forensic worker places stickers reading "Impact" around bullet holes on a car window at a crime scene in Guadalajara, Nov. 22. According to local media, three men riding in the car were shot by unknown assailants. (Alejandro Acosta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Christians pray for peace at the Macroplaza in downtown Monterrey on Nov. 13. More than 30,000 people have been killed across Mexico in drug-related violence since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his military-led crackdown against the cartels. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Galia Rodriguez, 8, daughter of reporter Armando Rodriguez who was killed in Ciudad Juarez, takes part in an anniversary in the journalists's park in the border city on Nov. 13. Two years earlier, suspected drug gangs fatally shot Rodriguez, a Mexican crime reporter who worked for El Diario de Ciudad Juarez. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks by a banner hung by suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang at a pedestrian bridge in Monterrey, Nov. 6. Suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang hung messages between trees and over bridges in Reynosa and in cities across northeastern Tamaulipas state, celebrating the death of rival Gulf Cartel gang leader Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas, who was shot dead by marines a day earlier. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A forensic investigator looks in a car where bodyguard Carlos Reyes Almageur lies dead on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico, Nov. 4. Carlos Reyes Almageur, a body guard for Mauricio Fernandez, mayor of the municipality of San Pedro Garza Garcia, was shot to death by unidentified assailants, according to police at the scene. (Carlos Jasso / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Family members and friends mourn during the Oct. 25 funeral of a victim killed at a family birthday party, in Ciudad Juarez. Families mourned the victims of the massacre, one of Mexico's worst shootings, as Ciudad Juarez residents expressed outrage at the surging violence. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. People clean a blood-stained patio at a home in Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 23. At least 13 young people were shot dead and 15 wounded in an attack on this house during a 15-year-old boy's birthday party. (Raymundo Ruiz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Morgue workers place a coffin containing an unidentified body into a grave at the San Rafael cemetery on the outskirts of the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 22. The bodies of 21 men and four women, killed in drug-related incidents, were buried after being held in the city morgue for several months without being claimed by relatives. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Seized weapons are shown to the press in Mexico City on Oct. 22. The arsenal, allegedly seized from the Zetas drug cartel and found hidden in a horse trailer, included high-power rifles, grenades and ammunition. Two people were arrested in connection with the seizure. (Miguel Tovar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Soldiers unload 134 tons of marijuana to be incinerated at the military base Morelos in Tijuana, Oct. 20. Soldiers seized the drug earlier that week in Mexico's biggest-ever pot haul, the army said. Heavily armed soldiers raided a series of homes in a poor suburb of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, Calif., and came under fire at least once as they took the drugs and arrested 11 suspected traffickers. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. People gather around a peace dove made out of candles in the patio of the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon during a protest against violence and in memory of slain university student Lucila Quintanilla in Monterrey, Oct. 15. Once an oasis of calm, Mexico's richest city has become a central battleground in the country's increasingly bloody drug war as cartels open fire on city streets and throw grenades onto busy highways. (Edgar Montelongo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A forensic expert looks at a bag containing a human head with a written message on it outside the newspaper Frontera in Tijuana, Mexico, Oct. 12. (Alejandro Cossio / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mexican police agents look at a man's corpse on a street of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 4. Since the Mexican government declared war on the drug cartels in late 2006, violence has claimed nearly 30,000 lives. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    The blindfolded and hand-tied bodies of 72 people thought to be migrant workers lie at a ranch where they were discovered by Mexican marines in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, Aug. 26. The marines came across the bodies after a series of firefights with drug gang members. (Tamaulipas' State Attorney General's Office via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Residents attend a downtown public funeral service for Edelmiro Cavazos, mayor of the tourist town of Santiago, some 18.6 miles away from Monterrey, Aug. 19. Drug hitmen have killed at least 17 mayors across Mexico since early 2008, according to media tallies. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A gold-plated, engraved and diamond-inlaid handgun is on on display at the Museum of Drugs in Mexico City, Aug. 18. Gold-encrusted weapons, children clothes decorated with LSD-laced stickers and religious paintings packed with cocaine offer a glimpse into Mexico's growing drug culture in this unique museum. (Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Editor's note:
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    The grandmother of police officer Jose Ramirez grieves over his body after he was killed by unidentified gunmen while on patrol in Las Joyas neighborhood in Acapulco, Mexico, July 17. Ramirez's grandmother did not give her name, citing security. Three other officers in the vehicle were also killed in the attack. (Bernardino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tape used to cordon off a crime scene lies surrounded by blood in Ciudad Juarez, Jan 31. Suspected drug hitmen burst into a party and killed 13 people, most of them teenagers, in one of the world's deadliest cities. (Alejandro Bringas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Police officers investigate the scene of a car bomb attack on a main avenue in downtown Ciudad Juarez, July 16. An armed commando set off a car bomb near three police patrol vehicles patrolling the border town, killing two police officers and wounding 12 others. Another grenade exploded when paramedics and journalists arrived, leaving three medical assistants seriously injured and a cameraman with minor injuries. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
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  2. Editor's note:
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  1. Image:
    Dario Lopez-Mills / AP
    Above: Slideshow (26) Mexico violence
    Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images
    Slideshow (15) Mexico under siege


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