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Seizing drugs… “UP” to a point

9 July 2011

Via Mexico Trucker On-line:

EL PASO — A border security program to X-ray every train rolling into the US has prompted as much as $400 million in fines against US railroads, which are held responsible for bales of marijuana, bundles of cocaine, and anything else criminals cram into the boxcars as they roll through Mexico.

Union Pacific, the largest rail shipper on the US-Mexico border and the largest recipient of fines, refuses to pay more than $388 million in fines, up from $37.5 million three years ago when the screening began. In federal litigation the railroad argues that it is being punished for something it cannot control: criminals stashing illegal drugs in railcars in Mexico.

…  The federal government recently signed a partial settlement with the railroad, releasing 10 seized railcars in exchange for $40,000, and agreed to return to negotiations with the railroad, according to court records.

When I was in Alpine, Texas, I supported my writing habit in large part by working as a chauffeur for Union Pacific crews, picking them up often in sight of the Mexican border, and occasionally at the Sierra Blanca siding, where the Border Patrol inspects cargo coming across the border. That doesn’t make me an expert on railroads (or anything else, really) but when two guys (and that’s the entire crew on a train… a brakeman and an engineer) have to “tie down” a train a half-mile or longer in the middle of an isolated rural siding and that train may sit for days, only to be moved in the middle of the night, it’s pretty easy to see how contraband gets aboard… and that’s not even talking about what’s in the cargo, or what goes on in the rail-yards (I once saw a boxcar on a siding that some jokers had repainted as belonging to the “Sinaloa Growers Association,” with a big marijuana leaf logo). There probably is no good way to completely guard against illicit cargo on a train… or a truck… or private automobiles for that matter.

The U.P., which  has always had excellent lawyers (going back to the 1850s, when the Alton and Sagamon Railroad Company — a part of which was later folded into U.P — hired a litigator named Abraham Lincoln).  The railroad — which has invested about 80 million dollars in better security and training — claims it is doing the best it can.  And, the fines are a little ridiculous — from Trains: THE magazine of railroading:

Under a 1930 law requiring an accurate manifest of everything on board a train, the U.S. Department of Justice fines UP $500 per ounce of marijuana and $1,000 per ounce of heroin or cocaine that reaches the United States on UP trains. These fines now exceed $388 million.

One comment you read from railroaders is that it’s the Mexican’s job to secure against contraband, and it’s a good point… but seeing that Union Pacific is a quarter owner of Ferrocarril Mexicano, it wouldn’t let them off the hook, and ould raise two much more interesting question.  If the investment in protecting against contraband is considered sufficient in the United States, how much would Union Pacific kick in to prevent contraband (especially weapons) from crossing into Mexico?  And — given that U.P. has paid some fines (basically admitting the government has a right to take action against the railroad) — how much of an investment, and in what kinds of security measures would be considered due diligence in Mexico?

And, if the Union Pacific wins, how much do other transporters need to invest to prove they are guiltless when it comes to cross-border illegal trafficking?  How much are we — on both sides of the border — willing to pay for extra freight costs.  For that matter, if an ounce of marijuana is held to be worth 500 dollars in damages in the United States, what price should be put on an AK-47 or MR-15 that kills a person here?


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