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12/04/2008

Multi-agency task force to combat smuggling at nation's largest seaport complex

LA/Long Beach first U.S. seaports to implement highly successful "BEST" program

LOS ANGELES - High-level federal and local law enforcement representatives today announced the deployment of a first-of-its-kind multi-agency task force at the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach modeled after the highly successful Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BEST) used to target smuggling and other criminal activity in key corridors along the nation's northern and southern borders.

The country's first seaport BEST, comprised of officers from nine federal, state, and local agencies, is responsible for detecting and investigating a wide variety of maritime-related crime, such as drug, alien, currency and weapons smuggling; trade fraud; and cargo theft. Agencies participating in the LA BEST include U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP); U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service; U.S. Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the Federal Air Marshal Service; the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department; the Los Angeles Port Police; and the California Highway Patrol.

At a news conference at the Port of Los Angeles this morning, representatives from the participating agencies underscored the benefits of the multi-agency enforcement strategy. The LA BEST officers work jointly to gather and analyze case intelligence and collaborate on investigations to identify and dismantle criminal organizations.

"The BESTs along the northern and southern border have had a major impact on smuggling and other criminal activity in those locations and we expect comparable benefits in Los Angeles," said Robert Schoch, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Los Angeles. "Since seaports are a tempting target of opportunity for criminal organizations seeking to move dangerous contraband, the expansion of BEST to the maritime arena is the logical next step for this highly-successful strategy."

While the nation's first seaport BEST began preliminary operations less than five weeks ago, the unit has already carried out several significant enforcement actions, including sizeable seizures of illegal drugs, firearms and counterfeit goods.

Last month, CBP officers discovered more than 140 pounds of cocaine concealed inside concrete cylinders being shipped from Mexico through the Port of Los Angeles to Australia. Investigators estimate the drug would have sold for as much as $16 million on the streets of Australia.
LA BEST officers alerted Australia's Federal Police and Australia's Customs Service and worked closely with those agencies on the ensuing investigation. As a result of the joint enforcement effort, late last week three Mexicans nationals were arrested in Australia and charged with drug trafficking. Australian authorities say the probe has disrupted the activities of a major international drug trafficking ring.

"CBP is fully committing our front line resources to the LA BEST," said Kevin Weeks, Los Angeles field operations director for CBP. "Sharing our intelligence, experience, personnel and dedication to the citizens we serve will significantly enhance our ability to protect our nation's largest seaport."

Also last month, LA BEST officers intercepted two large caches of weapons investigators determined were destined for Mexico. The more than 50 seized weapons included a grenade launcher, nearly a dozen assault rifles and a sawed-off rifle. So far, three suspects have been arrested on state charges in connection with the case and the investigation is ongoing.

"ATF with our partners in the LA BEST program will work tirelessly to deny criminals firearms and other tools of the trade and thus reduce the violence affecting communities in and around the port areas," said John A. Torres, special agent in charge for the ATF.

In the maritime arena, LA BEST officers' routine enforcement activities include conducting onboard inspections of "high interest" vessels coming into the port. The LA BEST officers also follow up on leads involving suspicious inbound or outbound cargo shipments.

"The LA-Long Beach Ports are a main entrance to America and they are California's main event in Homeland Security," said William J. McSweeney, chief of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Office of Homeland Security. "The LA BEST is the premier example of effective federal, state, and local law enforcement teamwork."

The Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport complex is the busiest port complex in the United States based upon overall cargo volume, handling nearly 500,000 containers a month. Together the two ports handle more than 40 percent of the commodities entering our nation's commerce system.

"Our Port Police Officers patrol the nation's busiest seaport every minute of every day," said Los Angeles Port Police Chief Ronald Boyd. "We welcome the opportunity to extend our reach by partnering with the other LA BEST agencies to ensure that the people and property at the Port of Los Angeles are secure."

The LA BEST is the 11th such task force nationwide. The other BESTs are based along the southern border in San Diego and the Imperial Valley in Calif; in Tucson, Phoenix, and Yuma, Ariz.; and in Texas in Laredo, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley. ICE has also established BESTs along the northern border in Blaine, Wash., and Buffalo, N.Y. While Los Angeles is the first seaport to receive a team, ICE plans to expand the program in the near future to other major U.S. seaports, including Miami, New York and Newark, N.J.

In fiscal year 2008, the BESTs nationwide accounted for more than 2,200 arrests, including nearly 1,000 criminal arrests. Additionally, BEST officers interdicted more than 1,600 pounds of cocaine, more than 55,000 pounds of marijuana and approximately 850 pounds of Ecstasy. Other notable BEST successes during the last year include the seizure of more than 400 weapons and nearly $9 million in U.S. currency and monetary instruments.

ICE will continue to establish new BESTs in areas where transnational criminal organizations seek to exploit security vulnerabilities. The new task forces will focus on all aspects of the enforcement process, from interdiction to prosecution and removal. The goal of the expansion is to strengthen the program's ability to dismantle the leadership and supporting infrastructure of the criminal organizations responsible for perpetrating violence and illegal activity along our borders and in the nation's interior.