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Containers linked to arms case found

(from the Chicago Tribune)

>             By Valerie Alvord
>             STAFF WRITER
>             March 22, 1997
>             Three shipping containers believed to be connected to a load
>             of illegal weapons that surfaced in San Diego two weeks ago
>             were confiscated by the U.S. Customs Service on Tuesday when
>             they arrived in New Jersey by train.
>             The containers, which took a circuitous global route before
>             arriving at the Port of Long Beach, were filled with items
>             sources said were not contraband. They would not elaborate.
>             However, authorities have not ruled out the possibility that
>             the containers were switched, either as they were shipped
>             around the world or before they were loaded onto a train
>             bound for the East Coast, customs sources said.
>             The seizure is the latest twist in an international intrigue
>             that has fueled concern about the future of the Long Beach
>             port, sparked complaints from the Mexican government that
>             the United States is the source of weapons moving south
>             across the border and raised concerns about how easy it is
>             to smuggle contraband into the United States in sealed
>             containers.
>             Concerns about smuggling at the Long Beach port were
>             heightened two weeks ago when The San Diego Union-Tribune=CA
>             first reported that two truckloads of weapons which came
>             into the country through Long Beach were found in a
>             warehouse in San Diego. It was one of the largest caches of
>             illegal weapons ever seized in this country. Customs sources
>             said at the time that four more containers were missing.
>             The discovery in New Jersey indicates that five of the six
>             containers may be accounted for, the sources said yesterday.
>             Customs officials are still trying to find out who is
>             responsible for the weapons, which were shipped from Vietnam
>             to Germany to Long Beach in January, then trucked to the
>             Otay Mesa border crossing.
>             In Washington, Mexico's ambassador to the United States
>             fired off a formal letter two days ago to the U.S. Treasury
>             Department, which oversees the Customs Service, calling for
>             an investigation into the San Diego shipment and expressing
>             concern about weapon smuggling.
>             "The letter says that the government is very concerned about
>             this incident and asks to share in any information that the
>             U.S. government has regarding this case, because the
>             smuggling of arms into Mexico is a matter of national
>             concern," said Lourdes Sandoval, spokeswoman for the Mexican
>             Consulate in San Diego.
>             She said renewed concern was prompted by the revelation that
>             the San Diego shipment -- two containers 20 feet long, 8
>             feet wide and 8 feet high -- had been bound for Mexico and
>             contained thousands of grenade launchers and parts of
>             automatic rifles.
>             The weapons were discovered after a warehouse worker noticed
>             the boxes, labeled as holding hand tools and straphangers,
>             appeared to contain contraband.
>             Sources said some of the pieces of the disassembled rifles
>             were missing, giving rise to fears that parts of the
>             shipment had already moved into Mexico.
>             Whether that is true remains the subject of speculation.
>             Sources said yesterday that the fact that all of the
>             containers which have surfaced so far have taken circuitous
>             routes around the world is suspicious and that routing
>             containers through many ports and onto more than one ship is
>             a trademark of smugglers.
>             The routes listed on the bills of lading for the containers
>             found so far appeared to be normal, but closer checking
>             shows that they crisscrossed the world.
>             Through interviews, shipping records and computer data, The
>             Union-Tribune=CA tracked the containers and learned that the
>             two found in San Diego landed in Long Beach on Jan. 12
>             aboard a South Korean cargo ship.
>             The shipment was composed of three containers, but one
>             container was returned to Vietnam, then routed back through
>             Long Beach by way of Thailand. It landed a second time in
>             Long Beach on March 6 and was loaded onto an eastbound
>             train. A shipping tracking system lost its trail in New York
>             City.
>             Sources said yesterday that not one but three containers in
>             the same shipment were loaded aboard the train.
>             "Agents were on the scene when the cartons arrived, but
>             there were no munitions," one source said.
>             The cargo could have been switched "anywhere along the
>             route" before it was loaded onto the train, he added.
>             "What happened is a good question," he said. "The secret is
>             in the transit around the world. It looks very suspicious.
>             Most people don't do legitimate business that way."
>             The focus on arms smuggling through the Long Beach port
>             comes as many people are criticizing a Long Beach city plan
>             to build a cargo terminal at the old Long Beach Naval
>             Station and lease it to the China Ocean Shipping Co.
>             Protesters say that COSCO is an arm of the Chinese military
>             and that turning the facility over to a company linked to a
>             foreign government could make smuggling easier.
>             Critics have said smuggling through any U.S. entry point is
>             easy because customs checks so few sealed containers.
>             "We might check 2 percent of (any type) of sealed
>             containers," a customs source said yesterday.
>             "So, if you're a smuggler, you can figure you've got a 98
>             percent chance of getting your stuff through. Those aren't
>             bad odds."
>             Staff writer Sandra Dibble contributed to this report.