EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — America’s southern ports of entry — long the principal gateway for illegal drugs — will be getting more technology in 2020.

The federal government has awarded a Massachusetts company a contract to install four undercarriage X-ray scanners at two South Texas ports of entry early next year.

In addition, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is testing non-intrusive inspection (NII) at four border crossings and has a Congressionally authorized war chest of half a billion dollars to spend on the right technologies, federal lawmakers, CBP officials and private contractors are telling Border Report.

“Drive-through technology is being piloted in Brownsville (Texas), it does seem promising. There are several ports — not only the port of Brownsville — but Hidalgo, the port of Progreso and perhaps even the port of Laredo –that are trying different systems, particularly the drive-through systems, to see if they meet our needs,” El Paso port of entry Director Hector Mancha said earlier this month.

Agents at border crossings for the past couple of decades have been utilizing technology such as VACIS (vehicle and cargo inspection systems), mobile tractor-truck X-ray systems and stationary gamma-ray machines. But the inspections are time-consuming and only 15% of commercial trucks and 1% of private vehicles coming into the United States are scanned, Texas and New Mexico lawmakers say.

Mexican drug cartels like those odds and continue to send loads of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine through the ports of entry. According to a July 3 report by the Congressional Research Service, 65% of all illegal drug seizures made since 2012 at the border occured at Southwest ports of entry where thousdands of trucks and regular vehicles cross into the U.S. every day.

Graphic courtesy Congressional Research Service

That combination is pushing lawmakers like Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, a former Navy seal, to insist on arming CBP with technology to enable officers to inspect more trucks and cars more quickly.

“We’ve got this pilot program going on in Texas where vehicles just drive through. It can drastically reduce the time it takes for Customs to actuallly see what’s in those vehicles to make sure they’re safe for entry into the United States and get commerce moving,” Crenshaw said.

He expects the pilot programs “should be wrapping up soon” and then it’ll be time for federal agencies to make recommendations on which are effective.

Mancha said CBP agents already in 2019 performed 6.6 million NII scans that led to the seizure of 216,203 pounds of drugs, $3 million in undeclared currency, 1,655 guns and 200 unauthorized migrants hiding in cargo trucks.

‘It’s like an instant X-ray’

X-ray imaging technology is used on a daily basis at Southwest ports of entry, but typically only when an inspector sends a truck or a passenger vehicle to what is known as “secondary inspection.”

The existing devices are large, there are not enough of them and each inspection can last up to 8 minutes, according to lawmakers.

But new, “game-changing” technologies are now on the market, and the federal government is starting to acquire them for CBP.

Viken Detection personnel demonstrate how the HBI-120 hand-held X-ray scanner works at detecting contraband inside a vehicle. (Courtesy Viken Detection)

Viken Detection of Burlington, Mass., had been providing handheld X-ray scanners known as the HBI-120 to CBP and to various law-enforcement agencies before it was awarded a contract recently for new undercarriage X-ray scanners known as Osprey-UVX.

This is an instant X-ray image of a vehicle passing over the Osprey-UVX undercarriage non-intrusive inspection system. (Courtesy Viken Detection)

“When a car drives over the system, the Osprey-UVX allows them to see through the undercarriage of a vehicle safely in under one minute. The undercarriage is a common hiding spot for drugs and other contraband, yet until now there wasn’t a way to reliably search it,” said Jim Ryan, CEO of Viken Detection.

The system is designed for border crossings with high volumes of traffic. Passengers stay in the vehicle and there’s no threat to their safety while an image is generated for the CBP agent that will be inspecting their documents, vehicle and belongings.

Jim Ryan, CEO Viken Detection

Ryan said CBP leadership has a “robust and comprehensive” plan to test and deploy large-scale NII equipment at border crossings in 2020 and points to bills like the Securing America’s Ports of Entry Act (co-sponsored by Crenshaw) as further commitments to improve border security.

“After meeting with CBP and House committees on homeland security … I believe everyone is in agreement that we desperately need this equipment at the border,” Ryan said. “With coordination, communication and a concerted effort to streamline the funding process, I believe tremendous progress can and will be made in 2020.”

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