Bryan Picado, CBP ports/customs adviser in Peru, discusses future plans for customs operations with Edith Sanchez Delgado, Peruvian national customs chief of staff during a visit to the Pachacamac ruins near Lurin, Peru. Photo by Warren Byrd
The scene is repeated at each stop, each day, of a two-week whirlwind tour of Peru law enforcement and customs operations: officials gleefully – and respectfully – greet their trusted friend and mentor, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection adviser.
“Buenos días mi amigo,” the Peruvian official bellows.
“Buenos días, cómo estás hoy? Muchas gracias por permitirnos visitar hoy,” the adviser replies. The informal greeting is a standard, “Hello, how are you today?” followed by a, “Very well, thank you for letting us visit today” response.
Observers – mostly CBP representatives who are part of the traveling entourage – then listen to a rapid-fire exchange of dialogue between the two in Spanish, noting the sincere smiles on each face. It’s evident there’s a bond, not only between the two government officials, but between their two countries.
And that defines the key ingredient to a successful adviser program: trust.
“My successes lie with the trust that we have, that I’ve been able to generate with the government of Peru,” said Bryan Picado, the CBP ports/customs adviser working with the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. Embassy, Lima. Picado started working with the U.S. Customs Service at the age of 16 and has stayed with CBP ever since.
Many professions require a workplace typically confined to one job-specific arena, with duties commonly stretched across a 40-hour work week.
Not so for CBP advisers. Workdays routinely bleed into nights. The “adviser” tag is misleading – they wear multiple hats simultaneously: financier, diplomat, adviser, legal eagle, translator, teacher, negotiator, coordinator, problem solver. That’s how they successfully orchestrate their environment.
The 30-odd CBP advisers and attachés scattered across the globe log their sleep sessions in winks, not hours. Their duties are endless, the job daunting. They must be sage and steadfast operators, and carry credentials steeped in CBP job diversity.
Perhaps most importantly, they play pivotal roles in helping host nations thwart criminal operations involving illegal drugs, illicit trade, smuggling, human trafficking and money laundering. They partner with local law enforcement and immigration and customs officials to improve their operations.
Advisers spearhead CBP’s efforts to help countries help themselves improve and build confidence in their abilities through training and mentoring. In some cases, like Peru’s, customs and law enforcement officials are overwhelmed and outpaced by criminal operations. Another hurdle is negotiating Peru’s laws governing seizure and disposition of illegal drugs or goods. Peru’s system assigns different legal procedures to each category of seized product.
Some advisers, though, face challenges unique to their posts. Peru is one such example. Led by Picado, the adviser program has flourished – combating cocaine trafficking and other illegal activities – because of his full-throttle approach and knack for building a close-knit, effective network of Peruvian associates.
While Picado works with the Andes Mountains as a backdrop, he’s mostly on the road. One day he’s crisscrossing the country offering training and advice on seizing drugs being smuggled into and out of ports of entry by sea or land. Another day Picado’s observing, assessing and then recommending better ways to conduct search-and-seizure operations. Peru’s estimated $1.2 billion a year illicit cocaine trade, with profit margins of roughly 80 percent, is a huge problem.
When office-bound, Picado works the telephone. He mediates with local and host country governments, customs officers and national police. These relations can be sensitive. It sometimes takes all his diplomatic skills to finesse a dialogue between them.
Training bolsters effectiveness
Picado said that the adviser program offers training, technical advice and the latest equipment to improve the way Peru screens cargo and passengers.
And, thanks to State Department funding, he’s able to buy narcotic-identifying equipment and new computers. He’s also able to maintain and repair U.S.-donated body and cargo scanners to improve search-and-seizure operations at Peru’s seaports and airports.
Picado also trains officers of the Peruvian National Police, or PNP, and Peru’s National Customs and Tax Administration, called SUNAT, to interdict drug shipments and other illegal contraband destined for the U.S. Safer ports boost the economy and stem the country’s crime, drug trafficking and violence, particularly in Lima and Cusco, located in the Andes east of Lima.
“Violence goes hand-in-hand with drug trafficking,” Picado said, explaining that killings and drug-related assassinations in the Callao port area are common. Even grenades are being tossed at vehicles.
But the U.S. investment is getting results. Peru customs and the national police now seize roughly 2 tons of cocaine per year. From January to August 2015, State Department ports and customs program activities resulted in a 200 percent increase in seizures. In Cusco, the Peruvians nabbed 30-plus kilos of illegally mined gold worth an estimated $1.3 million, $200,000 in currency and a Cessna airplane.
From January to August this year, the program trained 522 officers from several agencies to combat criminal organizations. It sponsored a new Customs Operational Practices for Enforcement and Seizures workshop in July, drawing more than 100 attendees, many from Peruvian law enforcement agencies. The workshop taught World Customs Organization standards in the storage, chain of custody and legal disposition of seized property and drugs.
Peru’s law enforcement and customs officials also learned targeting and risk management, as well as seaport and international air cargo interdiction. CBP recently brought Peruvian officials to El Paso and Laredo, Texas, for training in nabbing border crossers and using machines to detect contraband.
Progress, Picado said, is reflected by the fact that Peruvian customs and national police are making seizures now at some locations where before, they weren’t. He credits the U.S. presence.
“You can see successes with some of our training,” Picado noted. “We teach something, and then, boom, two or three weeks later, we see a seizure. It helps that we’re there with them.”
The International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs program, or INL, has led to several significant seizures this year, including:
- In Cusco, Peruvian law enforcement logged two separate seizures in the cities of Iquitos and Paita of more than 60 kilograms of cocaine.
- In March, based on Picado’s recommendations, Cusco’s international airport installed officers trained in CBP targeting methodology and soon seized four bars of illegally mined gold valued at nearly $1 million, and made two arrests.
- In May, the Peruvian Task Force targeted a shipment of canned pineapples in Callao that contained 122 kilos of cocaine worth about $7 million. Also in May, inspection of a targeted shipment of avocados destined for the U.S. revealed 166 kilos of cocaine embedded in the packing material.
- In early July, the task force seized 190 kilos of cocaine from duffle bags in a sea cargo container bound for Spain.
Picado said that the majority of cocaine from Peru – now the world’s top cocaine-producing country – is smuggled to South American countries for domestic consumption or for shipment to East Asia, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the U.S., with roughly 80 percent going to Europe. Consumption of illicit drugs in Peru is growing, especially in Lima’s Callao seaport area, which has experienced a 300 percent rise in crime and increased murder rates since January 2014, Picado said. From January until June of this year, for example, Callao has had 60 murders directly related to narcotics trafficking.
Lima is also becoming a base for human trafficking. It’s where Picado has invested in a modern computer system to help the country fight that growing issue. The technology modernized Peru’s human trafficking division and allows officers to more quickly and easily access information about ongoing investigations from the field, plus track and house trafficking data, which Picado said has led to more arrests.
The bigger picture
CBP advisers exist to oversee capacity-building programs that help other nations to fight the flow of illicit materials and people, as well as to quicken and secure trade and travel.
“The advisers promote continuity and sustainability for the training that CBP provides to assist the countries with implementing and institutionalizing new skills and concepts,” said Loretta Gamble, international operations executive director in the CBP Office of International Affairs. “This gives CBP an on-the-ground perspective that allows for the identification, investigation, and interdiction of threats as early as possible, often in their countries of origin and before they reach the United States.
“You have to have the ability to see the big picture,” she said.
Gamble said that Peru’s adviser program was very successful early, partly due to one of the first advisers, Art Bruno, now program manager for the CBP Office of Intelligence. Bruno, who arrived in 2007, was recruited by the State Department’s Narcotics Affairs Section, which later became International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, to run the Peruvian Task Force.
Bruno resurrected a flailing task force comprised of Peru’s DIRANDRO (anti-narcotics police), the PNP and SUNAT. Bruno still supports the adviser program by conducting training, targeting and assessments, including a recent trip to infuse new ideas into the task force to support Picado’s negotiated detente between SUNAT and PNP, who now work together harmoniously after a previously rocky relationship.
Gamble said another aspect of being a good adviser is practicing the World Customs Organization’s three critical components of any capacity building program – political will, people, and partnership – all of which the WCO considers key to helping countries operate globally and sustain their development and modernization. Advisers, she said, help countries engage those attributes by providing training and mentorship.
Peruvian customs and national police agree with U.S. officials that both countries learn from each other through training and sharing common customs and police operations experiences.
“The U.S. Embassy and Peru are strategic partners in the fight against people trafficking contraband and [committing] serious crimes. We have a common goal: to fight international crime,” said Ivan Luyo, deputy superintendent for SUNAT. “Their collaboration is invaluable. Trust is a key to achieve objectives. The work between our customs and the U.S. is a pretty clear example of collaboration and trust. We share a common goal, which is to protect the world’s society, and I believe the only way to do this is to work together.”
K-9 program grows with U.S. help
Suitcases are spread on the ground in the neatly pruned grassy quadrangle at the PNP K-9 headquarters in Lima. Sherman, the most productive dog in the pack of 49 canines, sits patiently by his handler, Saul Villanueva. Villanueva, an anti-narcotics division officer, has been a PNP canine handler for six years. This year, Sherman has spotted 320-plus kilos of cocaine. Villanueva has been with Sherman since January.
Sherman showed his prowess. On Villanueva’s command, Sherman calmly but intensely moved toward the suitcases, sniffing them one by one. Handlers had first tried to fool him by filling the suitcases with different items – not including cocaine – and shuffling them around like a street-corner shell game. Sherman didn’t bite on that ruse, but then a bag of cocaine was slipped into one of the suitcases. The suitcases were reshuffled before Sherman’s next run, and he quickly identified the bag and waited for Villanueva to acknowledge his find.
“The U.S. Embassy and agencies have provided a lot of capacity building for us,” said Javier Evaristo, commander of the PNP K-9 unit/anti-drug police section. “It’s been a very significant change since the U.S. became involved. We have the capacity to confront [in] the war on drugs. We would like to see the same support for us to be able to combat the emerging threats.”
Picado helped establish a system whereby the handlers, once selected, train and live with the canine for several months.
“It’s a great system, a concept that we like,” Evaristo said. “The handler gets to know the behavior of the dog, as well as the dog gets to know the handler, so they both work together well. There’s been a lot of successes, lots of seizures because of the dogs.”
The five dogs donated by the U.S. this year found more than 500 kilos of cocaine in seven months, inspiring the PNP to launch its own K-9 academy.
Picado said the K-9 program he’s nurtured in Peru is “one of my top priorities,” he said. “The canine has been one of the most successful tools used here, more than even non-intrusive technology.”
Villanueva doesn’t dispute that. “When CBP came here, they gave us tips on what we were doing wrong, and how we needed to correct those techniques to make us better handlers,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of successes and a lot of positive changes since CBP has been working with us, especially with the infrastructure [kennel facilities] and the types of dogs we have.”
Peruvian Task Force
Besides the K-9 program, one of Picado’s biggest accomplishments has been improving the Peruvian Task Force, a program that brings together select personnel from the Peruvian National Police and national customs. The task force was formed in June 2005 through a multilateral agreement between the U.S. Embassy-Lima, Peruvian customs, the PNP and the Peruvian national drug police. The task force led to the development of an advanced ports program.
Picado called those developments a big improvement after five years of low morale. “I was tasked with either invigorating or disbanding the task force,” he said. “I decided to move forward with the PTF and invested in capacity building rather than high-tech equipment, which has resulted in several significant seizures.”
A customs mutual assistance agreement signed in 2006 allows information between Peru and the U.S. to be cross-referenced for more accurate targeting. “A lot of the success we’ve had here is because of this information sharing,” Picado said.
Equipment donations buoy efforts
Through CBP’s adviser program and the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the U.S. has donated or purchased computers, screens, software and smart boards for the Callao office. The technology allows Peruvian officials to map and monitor drug trafficking organizations to determine problem areas at the Callao ports.
The U.S. has also donated X-ray machines, underwater photo equipment and scuba gear, which allows a diving team to look for drugs attached underneath vessels.
Picado said all the money the U.S. spends assisting other countries is worth it. “There’s a return on the investment for the American taxpayer,” he said. “We have that international footprint, we’re branding CBP, and countries are turning to CBP for assistance. We’re setting the tone, setting the standards as an agency globally.
“When you look at stopping a human smuggling ring, or stopping even 1 kilo of cocaine reaching our borders, that in itself is the payoff,” he added. “Expanding our borders, it’s all part of a layered strategy and has given us a lot of strength. We have made the U.S. better. We are protecting the frontline from far away. That’s why we’re here.”