Hundreds of drug suspects go free at U.S. border Some sent home to Mexico because of jail crowding, prosecutorial discretion


SAN DIEGO -- During the federal government's yearlong narcotics crackdown along the Southwest border, hundreds of suspected smugglers have been allowed to go free after U.S. authorities arrested them with substantial quantities of drugs at ports of entry in California.

In the past year, about 2,300 suspected traffickers were taken into custody for bringing drugs across the border but, according to records and interviews, more than one in four were simply sent home to Mexico because of jail crowding and prosecutorial discretion.

Two suspects with 32 pounds of methamphetamine and another with 37,000 Quaalude tablets, were simply "excluded" from the United States after their drugs and vehicles were confiscated.

The handling of drug cases at the border, most involving at least 50 pounds of marijuana, reflects shifting and sometimes conflicting pressures on the federal law enforcement community.

The threshold for prosecutions, drug agents say, has risen as the government has stepped up narcotics interdiction at border crossings and made more seizures. In addition, they say there often is no room for drug suspects at the federal jail here because it is overflowing with people awaiting trial on immigration violations and other charges.

After a seizure of 158 pounds of cocaine, one defendant was cited and released because there was no room at the federal jail, said the woman's attorney. The charges against her were later dropped, the attorney added.

Officials at the U.S. attorney's office confirm that, under a program quietly adopted two years ago, an increasing number of suspected traffickers have been sent back to Mexico without arrest or prosecution in either federal or state court. Instead, they are prohibited from returning to this country, pending an immigration hearing.

Government figures show that more than 1,000 suspected smugglers have been processed this way since 1994 after seizures by the U.S. Customs Service and the Border Patrol.

Justice Department and Customs Service officials have reported unprecedented drug seizures in the first year of Operation Hard Line, an anti-drug program along the entire Mexican border. Last year, they said, total drug seizures from vehicles, cargo containers and pedestrians at all ports were up 25 percent over the previous year.

The overall number of felony drug prosecutions originating from border arrests more than doubled in San Diego County, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kramer said, with almost two-thirds prosecuted in state court.

Pub Date: 5/13/96

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