Customs not playing hide-and-seek with carry-on contraband

Agents on front line against disease, disaster

It’s dinnertime at Washington Dulles International Airport, and Officer Steve Whittaker has found himself surrounded by a feast at the international-arrivals checkpoint — a pungent meal he has no plans to enjoy.

On a stainless-steel table, beef kabobs give off a spicy scent as they cool. A roasted chicken is wrapped in crinkled foil, one greasy drumstick visible. Halved apples and mangoes sit in a large bucket, browning in the air.

Peering into a dark carry-on suitcase, Officer Whittaker, an agricultural specialist, pulls a salted fish longer than his arm from a plastic bag, its shrunken eyes staring on either side of a gaping mouth.

“There’s a little bit of a risk with this job,” he says, sticking his gloved hand around the fish’s jagged teeth. “But it’s interesting. I get to see the world without going anywhere.”

Officer Whittaker, 54, is one of 250 officers with the Dulles branch of Customs and Border Protection. Their job? Protect the country from foreign threats, be they animal, vegetable or narcotic.

Hudson, trained to sniff illegal food products, alerts his handler to a possible problem in a passenger's bag at Washington Dulles International Airport. Agriculture specialists are on the lookout for plant and food items that can carry bacteria, pests and other potentially dangerous material into the country. (Barbara L. Salisbury/The Washington Times)

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Hudson, trained to sniff illegal food products, alerts his handler to a ... more >

Welcomes and warnings

All travelers on international flights pass through the 400,000-square-foot arrival terminals around the clock, which means the protection agency has officers on site 24/7. Because of a merger in 2003 after the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, officers at the different inspection stations — narcotics, agricultural and admissibility — can help one another.

“We enforce more than 400 federal, state and local laws,” said CBP supervisor Christopher Downing. “We keep the economy flowing. That’s pretty much who we are.”

Last month, Dulles customs officers found $130,000 worth of cocaine hidden in 12 chocolate bars and juice boxes. The 4 pounds of illegal drugs probably would not have been found if the officers weren’t thorough in their search through passengers’ belongings, a department spokesman said.

Officers armed with latex gloves, cutting tools and a lot of patience man the narcotics stations at the terminal. Whether it’s a random search or a check directed by declaration papers, each officer methodically inspects each piece of luggage and container that passes.

Not every bag has just clothing and tchotchkes. It’s not uncommon for an officer to find containers full of food, homemade medicines packaged in recycled motor-oil containers, or even a full steering wheel, complete with 3-foot-long drive shaft.

Though hesitant to give away all of the department’s strategies, CBP supervisor Scott Struble said when it comes to passengers who might be attempting something illegal, the goal is “to try to know their story before they get here.”

If there’s a problem with visas or passports, travelers are shuffled to a row of chairs where they wait for officers to investigate their circumstances and determine whether they are to be welcomed or sent home at the airline’s expense.

Passengers wanted for crimes are flagged by customs officers before landing so that officers can meet their plane when it touches down.

A Chester, Md., man wanted on two charges of sexual assault of a minor was arrested in September by officers who met his flight from Turkey.

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