By Tommy Purvis

Posted June 2, 2011 in Feature Story

The Union Pacific Sunset Route bisects the Inland Empire on a 760-mile track from Los Angeles to El Paso, Texas. That railroad—which mostly follows the contours of the international border—is a gravy train for criminal cartels from Mexico that increasingly use the freight thoroughfare to move humans and large caches of drugs.

Seizures by federal law enforcement officers of contraband on the spur lines that feed the congested border route have led to fines and a lawsuit against the railroad. Unable to secure railroad property with a far reaching police force that has numerous tools at its disposal to combat crime, the finger-pointing between the federal government and the railroad lingers on in the legal system.

Train traffickers in the meantime continue to move cargo on a recently upgraded border spur line that taps directly into the IE after it passes through one of Mexico’s most troubled narcotic regions known as the “Golden Triangle.”

Locomotive Choke Point

Security on the Calexico border spur was a concern to federal officials well before last summer’s $9 million marijuana seizure. The overburdened 45-mile freight line heads due north of the Mexican border mostly following California State Highway 111. The railroad leaves the Imperial Valley borderlands and links into the Sunset Route 35 miles south of Riverside County as the train tracks curve toward the Coachella Valley from behind the expansive Imperial Sand Dunes. The one to four trains that cross the border daily via the spur are likely headed to the Colton Crossing. The train track intersection just south of I-10 and a quarter mile east of Rancho Avenue is the spot where almost every train that leaves and enters California crosses paths.

The Union Pacific Sunset Route pushes 60 trains a day through the crossing alone. The locomotive choke point is one of the busiest rail crossings in the nation and provides traffickers the last chance to unload goods. Cocaine and marijuana traffickers will stow bricks of drugs secured above rail car axles. A false wall on the undercarriage of railroad cars is also designed for the same purpose. A more skilled smuggler will use a blow torch and welder to create a smuggling compartment. The largest of smuggling organizations will use business fronts and pay for the railroad to deliver multi-car loads to warehouses that have rail access. In some instances the most daring of traffickers will interfere with train tracks and load or unload cargo as the train slows down.

Graffiti sprawled on the side of the rail car is often used an indicator to the person on the other end of the shipment.

The Weed Express

An Anti-Terrorism Contraband team with a gamma ray imaging system found 4.5 tons of marijuana in a gondola rail car that entered from Mexico through the downtown Calexico port of entry last June. The payload—concealed under dirt, glass and wood in 352 bundles—was one of the biggest seizures of the year until December. Federal officers found almost 11 tons of marijuana headed to Chicago on a Union Pacific train that crossed the border in Texas that Midwest media came to know as the “Weed Express.”

The railroad was the target of a Department of Justice lawsuit in 2009. The lawsuit alleges that, on 37 separate occasions, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers that periodically sweep the railroads Calexico property on an unannounced basis were able to find enough marijuana to total 4,200 pounds. A separate lawsuit by the federal government against the railroad alleges that CBP officers found 117 kilos of cocaine in 99 packages within a false wall on the undercarriage of an empty Union Pacific rail car. All the seizures took place after the railroad submitted manifests to federal officers for inspection.

Union Pacific filed a motion for a summary judgment in the cases last April to avoid a prolonged trial. The railroad had already countersued the government in an attempt to rein in the CBP effort. The lawyers argued that the Tariff Act of 1930 designed to prevent ocean ship operators and airliners from allowing drug shipments aboard vessels and planes does not account for the drug war that rages in Mexico. In order to screen cargo before it crosses the border in Mexico, probable violence to railroad personnel would have to occur and Mexican law prevents personnel from being armed. The lawsuit asks the court to force CBP to return 24 seized railcars and revoke $61 million in fines that accumulated over the last decade.

“Railroad companies and other freight carriers must take seriously their obligations under the law to take appropriate action to prevent the use of their vehicles to smuggle narcotics and other contraband into the United States,” says Karen P. Hewitt, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California. “This civil complaint marks an important step toward addressing the repeated failure of the largest railroad company in North America to prevent rail cars bound for travel throughout the United States from being used to smuggle significant amounts of narcotics.”

Taking Their Obligations Seriously

The Union Pacific Police Department has alarmingly broad jurisdictional authority that covers the western two-thirds of the nation. The police force of 200 special agents based in Omaha, Nebraska covers a beat on rail that extends beyond Union Pacific’s 54,116 miles of track. Armed with a Navy Seal issued service pistol and a pump-action shotgun used in the Marine Corp, this police force has both investigation and arrest powers off and on railroad property. Along with access to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center that was developed to coordinate criminal investigations with other police agencies, the UPPD works in a relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency.

Last decade, the railroad spent $72 million for security infrastructure on the nation’s southern border. The train rider identification system allows police personnel to locate the exact location of persons smuggled on railcars without slowing the train down in the process. Cameras for the system are protected in tamper-proof boxes. Special agents dedicated to border protection use K-9 units to track down drug shipments. The railroad is also in the process of developing a virtual fence around railroad property to alarm police to unauthorized access. The security apparatus built by the railroad company does not post trophy pictures of seized loads with press releases like their CBP counterparts do.

Information regarding contraband interdiction efforts is kept internal.

War in the Tijuana Plaza

The geopolitical shift that made the Calexico spur a drug smuggler thoroughfare and the IE a spoke in the distribution hub occurred in the ’90s. The cocaine trafficking routes into Florida were secured by the DEA as the North American Free Trade Agreement flooded the southern ports of entry with cross border goods. In the hunt for humans and drugs camouflaged in cargo, overwhelmed CBP officers are forced to compromise security for the quick and efficient movement of goods. The capital of the U.S. cocaine trade moved from Miami Beach to Chicago, which is also the heart of the nation’s railroad network.

The Arellano-Felix Organization (AFO) took advantage of the situation and took control of the Tijuana Plaza—one of the most lucrative transnational smuggling routes on the globe. The tax collecting territory for contraband smuggled through AFO-controlled turf at one point extended eastward from Tijuana along the U.S.-Mexico border out of Baja California Norte into the neighboring state of Sonora. During the peak of the organization, which became known as the Tijuana Cartel, profits through the plaza were estimated to be worth $350 million a year by federal law enforcement officials north of the border.

Over time, the DEA-led war on drugs was able to create external and internal pressures that weakened the grip of this powerful cartel. But the power vacuum that followed pushed the Mexican Drug War to spin out of control as the Sinaloa Cartel moved into AFO turf. The federal highway that connects Tijuana to Mexicali across the border from Calexico is a dumping ground for tortured corpses caught in the bloodbath of narco-style justice. When the Tijuana Plaza was in firm control of the AFO, the residents were just as safe, and in most instances safer, then the working-class neighborhoods of the Inland Empire where their trafficked products are sold.

The Dark Desert Night

The western flank of the Hermosillo Division meanders up the Sea of Cortez from Mazatlan, Sinaloa to Baja California Norte. The railroad route through Tijuana Cartel–controlled states is part of a larger rail network owned by Ferrocarril Mexicano. Ferromex is the largest railroad in the nation with infrastructure that leads to six border spur links along the U.S.-Mexico border serviced by Union Pacific.

The railroad is the backbone of imports from Asia going to the U.S. marketplace that mixes with intermodal freight from Mexican factories. Union Pacific owns a quarter share of the private Mexican railroad’s stock. The Ferromex rail yard in Mexicali is minutes from the border and surrounded by 10-foot high concrete walls topped with razor wire. The temporary staging location for drugs smuggled on the railroad to the rail yard provides trafficking organizations with multiple options for cross-border shipment. Traffickers can sit on multi-ton loads in staging locations to piece out smaller payloads across the border in cleverly hidden compartments of cars, underground in tunnels that borrow into residential communities—or even in the air on ultralight air vehicles that make nighttime drops in remote agriculture fields.

Still, more drug loads than ever seem to be getting past the increasingly fortified border fence on the troublesome freight rail line. Improvements to the spur to speed up travel times were agreed upon after a bi-national summit between local governments, Union Pacific and CBP. Children on both sides of the border walk to school along side or between rail cars of spur trains that head north from the Mexicali rail yard each morning.

Earlier departure times and new railroad ties with fresh rock ballast beneath the track on the north of side of the border was offered as a solution to increase railroad crossing times. A new inspection area with track side walkways and stadium lights for CBP officers was also to be built a few miles north of the Calexico port of entry between Dannenburg Street and McCabe Road to help ease the congestion. But a tour of the area revealed that rail crossing improvements had occurred while the plans for the new inspection site had been nixed. Neither Union Pacific or CBP would comment on the status of the missing inspection site or security along the Calexico spur.

The semi-trucks and vehicles that enter the Imperial Valley through the Calexico port of entry on CA-111 are scrutinized at least one more time before leaving the borderlands at a Border Patrol checkpoint with a K-9 unit between Niland and Bombay Beach on the shoreline of the Salton Sea. But Union Pacific trains still speed past the inspection site with the occasional attention of a spotlight from a watchtower that looks for stowaways placed in strategic positions by human smugglers in the dark desert night.


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