A pickup truck in Mexico pulls up to the 5-foot vehicle barriers that make up part of the multibillion-dollar border fence. A retractable ramp is extended from the truck, forming a bridge up and over the barriers.
Then, a second pickup — this one loaded with a ton of marijuana — rolls over the bridge and into the U.S.
With gadgetry such as custom-built ramps as well as ultralight planes, false doors and good old-fashioned duct tape, smugglers have demonstrated unbounded creativity when it comes to sneaking drugs across the Mexican border. And the U.S. government acknowledges there is only so much it can do to stop the flow.
"We have to keep it at a manageable level so society can continue to operate," said Elizabeth Kempshall, agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's office in Arizona. "Are we going to get rid of 100 percent of all drug trafficking? Probably not. But I can make it as difficult and as costly as possible for these drug traffickers to get this dope into the United States."
The government has spent $2.4 billion to build more than 600 miles of border fences since fiscal 2005, increased the ranks of the Border Patrol from 12,000 agents in 2006 to 20,000, and funded U.S. Customs and Border Protection with $8.1 billion in 2008.
Over the past year, seizures of marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine rose sharply, while the amount of intercepted cocaine increased modestly. By far, the biggest seizures were of marijuana. A record 2.4 million pounds of pot was confiscated, a 50 percent increase over last year.
Nevertheless, enough drugs make it into this country to supply 20 million users, according to government estimates.
"The most frightening part is that when you finally catch on to something, you think, 'Wow, how many times did they get away with that one?'" said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing 17,000 agents.
Getting that truck across the border with the custom-made ramp took between two and four minutes. But drug agents didn't actually see it happen; the smugglers had rewired some ground sensors so that their vehicles wouldn't trip them, investigators said.
Investigators later seized a smuggler's cell phone and found it contained a video of the ramp as it was being used.
Drugs are also brought to by teams of backpackers, on horseback, hidden in gas tanks and boxes of vegetables, duct-taped to the thighs of pedestrians, floated in crates through sewers and dropped to the ground from ultralights that fly just above the tree line.
Once agents get wise to a trick, smugglers adjust it or move on to the next scheme. When agents get control of a section of border, smugglers switch to a more vulnerable spot.
During the smuggling journey involving the retractable ramp, lookouts on mountains instructed drivers to pull over and drape their trucks and SUVs with camouflage tarps whenever sensors were tripped or agents were nearby, authorities said. Sometimes the smugglers waited days before resuming their trek.
The smugglers also erected a string of communication towers in the mountains so that drivers could receive instructions from spotters equipped with solar-powered radios. The installation of one tower required the help of a helicopter, police said.
"This is a war of technology, and I believe that the only way we are going to win it is if our technology is better than theirs," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.
On the Net:
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol: http://www.cbp.gov
National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers: http://nafbpo.org