Thursday, October 09, 2008

US DEA border groping borders on herASSment

Flights into and out of Guam and Saipan are often in the wee hours of the night. The airports have waived any curfew requirements to encourage visitor traffic. By allowing late night activities, airlines can keep their capital working by leaving major cities with curfews at the last minute, fly to the islands and return in time for the morning lifting of the curfew. The islanders consider the inconvenience of the late night traffic trivial as exchange for the tourist trade.

So this story, as reported in the Saipan Tribune and the Pacific Daily News, has attracted a bit of a curled lip locally. Guambat extracts parts from those articles following:

187 passengers flew in on a flight from Shanghai to Saipan, arriving in the early hours. Agents corralled 147 of the 187 passengers on the flight into a small room and searched even the most private parts of their bodies, in addition to searching every piece of checked and carry-on luggage they carried.

Some small amounts of banned agricultural products (plant and animal material, which could mean about anything) were, perhaps, found, but searching for that is the duty of the Customs people, not the Drug Enforcement officers.

No drugs were found.

Passengers on the flight were body-searched, including being touched beneath bras and undergarments, turning the usual hour-long airport process into a stressful three-and-a-half hour ordeal.

Century Tours general manager Ronald Chan, a passenger on board the Shanghai flight, said in a statement. “Through my own experience, you can see how the DEA treated us upon arrival.”

Chan reports that after reaching the customs desk at the airport, a DEA agent stopped him without telling him why.

“Then he isolated me in a small room . and asked me to face the wall and put my hands up on the wall,” Chan said. “He then proceeded to frisk me up and down my body-I was so shocked by what was happening-which included him touching my private parts three times. I must emphasize that he never asked me or would tell me what was going on.”

“This is nothing new,” said Antonio Marquez, the agent in charge of the DEA's Guam Resident Office, adding that the agency has conducted such searches throughout the United States for more than 30 years. “As we are picking it up on Guam doing this, we're going to be doing the same thing [in the CNMI].”

Narcotics smugglers, he added, often attempt to bring drugs across borders on flights that arrive in the early hours of the morning in a bid to catch customs officials off guard and searches like those on Saturday are critical to curbing the flow of crystal methamphetamine into the CNMI.

He said the airport searches seen on Saturday are commonplace on America's mainland and an integral part of the agency's efforts to intercept narco-traffickers. The operation was also conducted well within the DEA's legal authority, he added.

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