Trusted Traveler Program Sparks Fears That Mexican Drug Cartels Could Bypass U.S. Airport Security

Mexican citizens will soon be eligible to apply for a "trusted traveler" status that will allow them to bypass some elements of airport security when they fly into the United States — a U.S. government-approved program that critics say could be exploited by violent drug cartels.

Under the program, Mexicans who have undergone background checks and are deemed low security risks will be able to fly into major U.S. cities and breeze through customs without being questioned by U.S. Customs agents.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and her Mexican counterparts announced their intent to roll out the program two weeks ago, trumpeting it as evidence of increased information sharing and law enforcement collaboration between the countries.

The program is an expansion of an existing trusted traveler program, the Global Entry Program, which was launched in 2008 and expedites pre-approved passengers through the airport customs and security process when they arrive in the U.S.

The program is designed to weed out low-risk passengers and enable authorities to zero in on those who may be more likely to pose a threat.

But critics say Mexico's drug cartels will quickly learn how to exploit loopholes in the plan, and they point to the recent arrests of two pre-vetted "trusted travelers" caught trying to smuggle marijuana and other contraband into the U.S. through a Texas border checkpoint.

Sheriff Larry Dever of Cochise County, Ariz., says drug cartels could recruit Mexicans with clean backgrounds to attain trusted traveler status, and then use them to smuggle drugs and other contraband into the U.S.

“We know even on this side of the border that drug cartels recruit people to apply for jobs with Customs and Border Protection, Immigration — they keep them clean so they pass background checks,” he said.

But DHS officials insist that people who attain trusted traveler status don’t get a free pass.

“Trusted travelers are still subject to random searches,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Joanne Ferreira. “We do all these checks all the time to maintain the integrity of the program. We look at it very carefully.”

The Global Entry program allows U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have undergone a thorough vetting process — fingerprinting, background checks, interviews with customs agents, etc.— to attain a low-risk status that allows them to skip the line at customs and complete their entry process at an automatic kiosk. The kiosks are currently available in 20 major U.S. airports.

Mexican citizens applying for trusted traveler status will pay a $100 application fee and undergo thorough vetting by both U.S. and Mexican authorities. If approved for the five-year membership, their biometric and other information will be entered into a database that is rechecked every 24 hours, the DHS spokeswoman said.

Mexican citizens are already eligible for expedited land border crossings through another trusted traveler program, Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI). But DHS officials admit that system isn’t flawless.

Last week, two SENTRI trusted travelers were caught trying to bring contraband across the border into the U.S. through the SENTRI-only express border passage.

“The program in El Paso has been around since the late '90s," said CBP spokesman Roger Maier. "The program was designed to expedite entry for low-risk, high-frequency travelers. Occasionally someone will look at this as a chance to smuggle. Occasionally you will have someone who tries to press their luck.”

Maier noted that the two trusted travelers were caught because they still remain under scrutiny.

“We do trust, but we will verify,” he said.

But Dever says the arrests show that drug cartels could try to recruit people with clean backgrounds to be accepted into the program.

“It’s a sinister business," he said. "It’s calculated and well planned and they could develop these people early.

“This is a very sophisticated, very thought-out, forward-looking business — drug smuggling, people smuggling, it’s a huge enterprise. They’re not successful by guessing. They’re successful by planning and organization, and part of that is recruitment of operatives to infiltrate.”

Dever also criticized Napolitano’s launching of the program at a time of ever-escalating violence along the border.

“There’s obviously concern about abuse of anything like this,” said John Mill Ackerman, editor-in-chief of the Mexican Law Review and a professor of constitutional law at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“There’s always the risk of people using legal status to commit crimes, and that’s why we have oversight. ”

He said critics of the policy have an unrealistic understanding of the border issue.

“People imagine it’s just destitute peasants trying to run across to get work and tourists trying to go south and that somehow you can check everyone coming across the border, but this isn’t possible,” he said.

But Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, which has been an advocate of trusted traveler programs, said the program will benefit both travelers and security officials.

He said the Mexican Global Entry program will benefit frequent business travelers who, like other international visitors, boost the U.S. economy.

“We do need their business, we do need to create jobs. We are in a worldwide competition to attract travelers, their dollars, their minds, and right now we are not thriving in that competition; we’re drifting backwards,” Freeman said.

“We need to be asking two questions: It’s not just, 'How do we keep the cartel out?' The second part of the question is, 'How do we keep those people in who don’t wish to do us harm?' ”

“Want to win hearts and minds, get visitors here. Or we can throw the baby out with the bath water if two get arrested.”

Stewart Verdery, who helped develop the Global Entry program as an assistant secretary under former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and is now a founder and partner at Monument Policy Group, a consulting group, said the new air trusted traveler program could make the tremendous volume of travelers from Mexico more manageable while freeing up resources.

“There is always going to be some minute chance that someone’s going to get through,” Verdery said, noting that he has trusted traveler status through the Global Entry program. (His vetting took three weeks.)

Dever said the program would also be more palatable if U.S. citizens traveling domestically could participate in this kind of program, too.

“We should probably do this domestically before we extend the olive branch to a foreign country,” he said.

“Maybe there’s some way I can get into this program so I don’t have to get manhandled by T.S.A.,” he said.