Border Guard Wages War on Smugglers (Nov, 1934)

Thank god the border guards were able to stem the massive tide of contraband shoes and serapes (see the picture on page 3). Who knows where we would be without their vigilant efforts.

Border Guard Wages War on Smugglers
Daring Patrolmen in an Endless Fight To Halt the Traffic in Aliens and Contraband

By Andrew R. Boone

CROUCHED beside a squat tum-bleweed not fifty feet from the rusting monument that marks the boundary between California and Baja California hard by the sea, the border patrolman scanned near-by hills with his powerful glasses. He was V. E. Williams, one of Uncle Sam’s mounted border officers, and he was keeping vigil on a lonely section of the border awaiting the coming of a smuggler whose habits he had been observing for several days and nights.

From his position he could see the crown of the hill in a broad semicircle to the south. Not a creature could come over and remain hidden. For two hours he watched and waited while not a sound disturbed the silent night. Then he heard a faint purring. Cautiously he arose on one knee. The purring became louder. Through the haze he could see the dim outline of a small boat approaching the border.

Five minutes later the patrolman pointed his Very pistol toward the sea. Plop! A ball of white fire rose in a graceful arc. He fired a second signal, and before its light died away he was racing through cactus and small bushes toward the sea. A half mile further north other officers joined the chase. Out to sea a fast motor boat bounded across the waves. Quickly the officers closed in, the inbound boat driving the smuggler ashore.

Every night, somewhere along the far-flung borders of the United States, border patrolmen halt new invasions of smugglers. Despite repeal, alcohol in various forms continues to prove a profitable contraband. Aliens pay substantial prices for delivery to inland cities. Smugglers of narcotics receive high fees for transporting small boxes of dope to dark clearings serving for a moment as landing fields. Beautiful Mexican mantillas, cheap foreign cigarettes, shoes made abroad, even American-made goods exported duty-free find their way across the borders into eager hands.

Hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors enter the country legally every year. At each port of entry, alert patrolmen question every traveler, examine each car. Through mirrors set at an angle in the edges of concrete platforms they view the • bottom of every vehicle. Lights set in the pavement supply illumination at night.

Both people and goods are caught in many hidden recesses. One large sedan joined the fleet of captured rum runners when inspection revealed the brake drums were copper containers filled with alcohol. In another, two aliens were found back of the rear seat. A coupe yielded two from a compartment behind the seat.

But the drama of the borders is being written in lonely, out-of-the-way stretches of desert, sea, and mountains where keen-eyed patrolmen wage eternal war to beat back smugglers and stop the illegal flow of goods and persons into the United States.

Though the immigration service is interested primarily in persons, customs in things, and the coast guard in both, officers are seldom sure of what they will catch until the arrest actually is made. They go about their plans with military precision, covering a sector much as an army division guards all points on a front, though with infinitely fewer numbers.

The entire immigration watch from Chula Vista was assigned recently to the western sector near Nestor, Calif., covering the Pee Vee road. Somewhere around Nestor or Imperial Beach, they suspected, smugglers would come across the line during the night and make for points north. Two inspectors were stationed in the Emery schoolhouse, which commands a view of three roads and the fields between them.

Meanwhile Roy B. Newport, in charge of the watch, was returning to Nestor to take up a hidden position. While gliding down a hill with his lights out he saw a figure cross the highway.

“Where are you bound, stranger?” Newport asked, as his car rolled to a stop.

“I’m in a hurry,” came the whispered reply. “I’ve just come over the line through the river bottom.”

“That’s good news,” responded Newport. “Stick up your hands and I’ll conduct the tour.”

He ordered the smuggler into his car, handcuffed him to the wheel and set out with drawn revolver after three Orientals ” he could see in the bushes. Sand from the dry river bed, found in the trouser cuffs, linked the border runner with the contraband and not only sent him to a federal prison, but brought confessions which resulted in the conviction of the “brains” of the gang, Clarence K. Aiken, former army officer, who is now serving 19-1/2 years at McNeil’s Island. This is the longest sentence ever handed a smuggler.

Aliens often are brought into ocean ports, whence they are whisked away to population centers. Dusk or dawn are the favorite times. Runners leave near-by foreign ports, sail outside the twelve-mile limit, then under cover of darkness return to land unseen. They take off in airplanes, head straight out to sea at altitudes so low they cannot be seen from shore, cutting in when safely beyond the vision of officers on the border.

All planes are numbered. If one strange to the locality appears, border patrolmen watch its movements closely. It may be spotted taking off from a Mexican or Canadian field in early morning or late at night. Who meets it? If met by a suspicious character or known smuggler, that pilot’s movements are closely watched.

To date the patrolmen have been seriously handicapped by having to operate with automobiles only. Here’s where the coast guard enters the picture. Flying in land planes and amphibians, armed with long-distance telescopes and machine guns, their pilots now not only can catch smuggling planes along the borders, but also can chase them out to sea or cut off their retreat to the border and hover over them until fuel expended, they finally are forced to land and surrender to officers.

Coast guard planes, assigned to this particular work, extend the range of vision enormously. In two or three hours an alert pilot, cruising a mile up, can locate and radio to the patrol force commander the name and location of every boat in his area within twelve miles of shore, report conditions along wild stretches of coast line and uninhabited inlets and call for patrolmen in fast motor boats to speed out from their base to turn back or capture smugglers threatening to rush the coast.

“The effect,” explained one pilot, “is largely strategic. Our presence alone halts some running of the borders because smugglers know a radio message will send officers on their trail.”

Airplanes and radio communications, denied the border patrolmen until the last few weeks, are expected to make possible the halting of a threatened invasion, particularly of liquor, which has been piling up in Mexico. In Ensenada, Baja California, for instance, the border patrol is informed 150,000 cases of alcoholic beverages are now stored. It was taken there because Ensenada is a free port. It must be moved in sixty days. Where? Probably to southern California on small boats and in trimotor airplanes, carrying as many as 200 cases on each run.

A similar invasion, threatened along the Texas border in an effort to escape import duties, is being met by mounted patrolmen equipped with field-radio sets. Eighteen members of the border patrol have been killed by desperate smugglers in Texas in ten years. Every month witnesses a gun fight as smugglers blast their way out of federal traps with six-guns and rifles.

Recently a radio station has been installed at Marfa, Texas. Patrolmen covering the border 300 miles distant report regularly from their portable sets, giving information of suspected border runners and receiving tips which frequently lead to arrests.

All the color of the wild west may be found along the Texas border. There the organized bands are interested in things rather than persons. Only officers of long experience are permitted to risk their lives against these desperate gangs.

“Usually,” I was told by a grizzled Texas patrolman, “one or two lone walkers come across the border, each carrying four 5-gallon cans of ‘alky,’ two slung over each shoulder in gunny sacks. Following them, spread out like a line of skirmishers, come from thirty to forty more, all armed and all carrying similar loads.

“If they get through, okay; but if the advance guard is challenged, rifle fire opens up and the gang protects their retreat.”

“How often does this happen?” I asked in astonishment.

“Too frequently for comfort,” he said.

In New Mexico the gangs are smaller. There they head for mountain trails in groups of six to eight. Too few in numbers to halt them at the border, the patrolmen watch the line for signs of crossing. Recently four officers found a trail near El Paso and followed the fresh tracks twenty-five miles into the mountains where they captured a burro train staggering under a heavy load of alcohol.

Occasionally a smuggling band transfers its activities from one kind of contraband to another, though seldom to a new territory. They prefer to operate in territory they know. One southern runner of alcohol recently dropped that trade, but the officers soon saw him hobnobbing with two men twice convicted of smuggling aliens.

Two days after they first spotted him with criminal companions, the officers saw the same three men talking together in a saloon on the Mexican side of the line. That night they saw the suspect leave San Diego and approach the border. An hour later four mounted patrolmen followed, going to San Ysidro where they surrounded a lonely spot they thought likely to be selected as a point of delivery. Soon after their arrival, they saw an alien enter the smuggler’s car. While three other aliens escaped they captured the smuggler and his lone customer, thus assuring the smuggler a year’s stretch in the federal penitentiary at McNeil’s Island.

Occasionally, though not often, alert officers capture a receiving agent, hundreds of miles from the international boundary. Not long ago a boy twenty-two years old, was arrested while bringing in aliens. While out on bond awaiting trial, he made several more trips. Finally, having learned where he was delivering them, officers hid one dark night in Spofford alley, San Francisco. As the sun was breaking over the eastern mountains, four patrolmen captured him at the moment he was handing over to an agent six aliens. He was the first receiver to be caught in the act, and convicted, in California during a nine-year period. The young smuggler is credited with having delivered 105 aliens to Spofford alley before he reached prison.

Sometimes the border patrolmen find the key to smuggling closer at home. An Oriental interpreter, who long had been respected by federal agents, at last came under suspicion because of company he kept. Agents watched him leave San Diego in a boat in company with two known smugglers and early in the morning captured all three off Point Loma with nine luckless aliens cramped in the hold of the boat.

From eastern Canada, aliens seek to enter large eastern cities, particularly New York. From western Canada, they hope to gain Seattle. Those entering along the southeastern coast hope to reach inland cities, particularly Chicago. From west Mexico they filter through and dash for Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Chinese, mounted patrolmen told me, want to make their future home in San Francisco, while Japanese prefer Los Angeles. In those cities are large colonies of these nationals. Many Mexicans, though otherwise eligible for citizenship, are smuggled in, particularly in recent years, because they cannot hurdle the public charge visa. The price scale depends largely on the distance to be traveled. An alien may find ways and means of reaching Los Angeles, 140 miles north from Lower California, for $125; but if he prefers San Francisco, he must fork over $200. Usually the longer trips are taken in airplanes, a half-dozen aliens reaching their destination in a four-hour flight from some cow pasture twenty miles distant from the border.

SMUGGLERS take unbelievable chances. Not long ago a party of Americans left a southern California airport in time to fly over Rosarita Beach, ten miles south of the boundary. Fog drove them low and as they passed over a clearing at Rosarita they observed a box being transferred from an automobile to a plane. They were so close, one man recognized the pilot.

Unsuspecting, the pilot took off for a point near Los Angeles. Meanwhile the first plane landed at Ensenada, where a curious passenger telephoned to American customs officials, giving the number of the plane.

“Thanks very much,” replied the patrolman. “We’ve been watching that baby. He lands usually on an airport near Burbank.”

Two cars of customs officers rushed to the field. Thirty minutes later, the plane appeared, circled, came down for a landing. As his wheels touched the ground the officers dashed out to intercept him, but the wary pilot saw them, gunned his motor and took off. A few minutes later the disappointed officers saw a box drop from the ship, but intensive search failed to bring it to their eager hands. The plane was seized for failing to clear customs, but because of lack of evidence the pilot could not be convicted for running narcotics.

“A gang may specialize in liquor,” one border patrolman of long experience told me, “yet if the price is satisfactory they will attempt to bring in aliens or narcotics.”

ODDLY, the bigger the gang the more secretly do Uncle Sam’s border agents go about the task of bringing its members to justice. Possibly only three or four men will have even an inkling of what’s going on until abruptly the staff in a particular district receives orders to spread a net around a delivery point or some isolated airport. Often, in this way, immigration officers will complete a liquor case before passing the information on to customs officers to make the arrests.

Large gangs are known to operate on both borders, plying their nefarious trade in the dark of night. To catch the leaders and present conclusive, convicting proof in court is, however, a difficult matter. Yet their methods are known and in some cases even the leaders’ names are contained in confidential reports hidden away in voluminous files.

One western gang has three leaders. It controls fifteen airplanes, with pilots ready to fly to any Mexican or Canadian destination from Pacific Coast cities, load up with contraband, and deliver it anywhere they may be ordered.

“The pilot,” a veteran patrolman told me, “never knows to what foreign field he is to fly until he receives orders a few minutes before taking off. When he reaches his destination another agent delivers the load of aliens, alcohol, or dope. Not until then is he told where to land on his return journey with
the smuggled goods.”

The difficulties of apprehending smugglers under these conditions seem insurmountable. They may choose from an almost unlimited number of fields on both sides of the border, and their modern planes fly over the boundary line at night, so high that not even the roar of their motors can heard by ground observers.

But the patrolmen gradually move in, stopping an airplane here, another there, until they so cripple the gang financially that it cannot reap the huge profits its greedy promoters visualized.

Take this case. An airplane was seen to land three times on an eighty-acre clearing near Fallbrook, Calif. A large black sedan met it and sped away. The pilot took off immediately and disappeared into the night with nothing to indicate his destination.

THEN the immigration patrolmen went into action. They studied the territory. They noted that an automobile could be spotted from the air if it approached within five miles of the clearing. Two patrolmen drove to the edge of a clump of trees about five miles distant, then walked to the scene of what they hoped would be action. Quietly they crossed the clearing, in the center of which they found a small clump of bushes in which they concealed themselves and waited. Hours passed and they were on the point of giving up the vigil when the glare of headlights swung into the field. The car’s lone occupant drove slowly around the borders, circled the island of shrubbery, again traversed the field to make sure no observers were abroad, then stopped a few feet from the spot where the officers lay flat on their faces hidden by the darkness.

As the driver nonchalantly stepped from the automobile a whisper cracked out through the still air:

“You are covered, pardner. Walk over here and don’t make any mistakes.”

The astonished smuggler moved slowly toward the unknown voice. One officer kept him covered while the other took an automatic from the prisoner’s holster. Their instructions were brief:

“Lie down and keep quiet.”

Fifteen minutes later, the drone of an airplane engine could be heard in the southeast. Its steady beat grew rapidly stronger, then suddenly stopped as the pilot eased back on the throttle before starting his long glide. Hardly had his wheels touched the earth when a dark figure stepped into the car, drove quickly alongside the plane. The pilot swung the cabin door open, hopped out and lowered two five-gallon cans to earth.

“Give me a hand, Jerry,” he said. “I need help.”

“More than you realize, my friend,” replied the voice within the car. “Stick ‘em up and we’ll take care of the load.”

The “load” consisted of 250 gallons of cargo alcohol.

UNCLE SAM’S mounties of both services patrolled a total of nearly 15,000,000 miles last year in their quest for contraband. In boats, automobiles, and airplanes; on trains and horses and afoot, they seek to stem the tide of illicit entries. An army of nearly 2,000 men spread its thin lines along both borders, keeping watch day and night. In a twelve-month period they will question more than 1,000,000 people in an effort to learn their nationality, residence, and intentions; examine a half-million automobiles, and seize possibly 25,000 aliens and smugglers, a good-sized fleet of automobiles and boats and, occasionally, an airplane.

1 comment
  1. Neil Russell says: November 12, 20071:25 pm

    At the top of the third page Larry Fine is seen wielding a BAR, hardly a “submachine” gun, I would think anything that packs a 30-06 round as almost a heavy machine gun.

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.