Super Job Well Done
CBP officers conduct X-ray inspections of vehicles as they enter a secure area near the stadium in advance of Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona. Photo by Glenn Fawcett
Published: Feb. 13, 2023
A famous football coach is known for exhorting his team to “do their jobs” – be prepared, work hard, pay attention to the details and put the team first. It could be said the Kansas City Chiefs certainly did their job at Super Bowl LVII, getting a 38-35 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. But another team in Glendale, Arizona, – U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, Air and Marine Operations agents, and civilian employees – looked for a win of their own … and got one.
“CBP had multiple lines of effort that went on at the Super Bowl,” said Chief Patrol Agent John Modlin, in charge of the sprawling Tucson, Arizona, sector along the U.S.-Mexico border and led CBP’s far-ranging efforts at this year’s Super Bowl. He pointed out his agency is uniquely well-suited to pull off an event like this that included varied lines of effort – from air security to cargo security to stopping human trafficking. “We have incredibly competent and disciplined personnel who are accustomed to performing their duties in the most challenging conditions in the nation. We have state-of-the-art technology that we use every day to protect the border, and we have people who are integrated and coordinated with state, local and federal partners every day. That familiarity – built over several years – is key to multi-agency events.”
And as Modlin was quick to point out, it’s a win they seek every day.
“Security at the Super Bowl was very similar to day-to-day operations,” he said. “CBP is often called to assist with events of this magnitude. Sometimes it’s a response to a natural disaster, or it’s one of these types of events where we have time to do significant planning. Regardless of which it is, CBP is always ready to step up and assist where we can.”
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations Black Hawk helicopter conducts a flyover of the stadium as CBP provides significant security in advance of Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona, Feb. 6. Photo by Glenn Fawcett
Like any good coach, CBP selected a team of its own all stars who made the security footprint at the Super Bowl a winning formation. Among those in the most high-profile of roles, was CBP’s Air and Marine Operations aircraft, pilots and aviation enforcement agents. They flew nearly 60 hours, providing air security before, during and after the game, plus a video downlink shared with law enforcement agencies on the ground in Arizona and back at CBP headquarters in Washington. In addition, the crews would have been able to transport any rapid reaction forces, if a significant event had occurred.
“We conducted overwatch missions,” said Michael Montgomery, director of the Tucson Air Branch and in charge of CBP’s air security contributions to the event. “We looked for low-flying aircraft that would have violated the [flight-restricted zone around the stadium]. It was a layered approach to air space security.”
In many ways, it’s similar to what Air and Marine Operations does every day along the border.
“It was a complete [Air and Marine Operations] effort,” Montgomery said.
John Russell is one of the aviation enforcement agents, who was in charge of helping one of the tactical teams – one from Homeland Security and the other from local law enforcement – as the teams were in one of the Blackhawk helicopters. He added that apart from their regular jobs along the border, they trained specifically for working in the unique environment of the Super Bowl, which involved more people in a confined, urban area for the game. It was a difference they prepared for over the last three months.
“It’s something we train for, but this was much more intense,” he said. “It’s a large city, and we adjusted for different hazards: light poles, power lines, buildings. It was a massive event with people all over the place. Much different than our normal day-to-day flights and patrols.”
Pilots and aviation enforcement agents helped maintain a vigilant watch from the skies.
“We added a strong additional layer of officer presence,” said Tony Fiorenza, a pilot, pointing out that presence helped maintain the security while also deterring anyone who might have thought about doing anything wrong … and showed how diverse and flexible CBP can be. “We accomplish just about everything. We’re very big in search and rescue, not just along the border. We’re available for mass casualty events, but also law enforcement in densely populated areas. No one else has the assets and experience we have in an airborne setting. We provide security across the board. The border is just one mission.”
Another big piece of CBP’s efforts included the security scanning of all the trucks, vans and vendors who came into the stadium area – a total of 1,258 scans performed in the days and even hours before the big game. Using large X-ray trucks, CBP officers were able to “look” into a cargo hold and determine if anything out of line was in that vehicle.
“We looked for anomalies,” said Chief CBP Officer Rosa Salas, in charge of the X-ray machines. Those anomalies might include a dark spot out of place in the X-ray of a cargo hold, or maybe a shape that doesn’t match what should be in that trailer or vehicle, or a silhouette of a gun or bodies hidden in there. “We looked for anything out of the norm.”
Salas said they worked 12-hour days in the run-up to the game, making sure nothing – and no one – got in that wasn’t supposed to be in the stadium area. While they were long days, the importance of the Super Bowl and making sure nothing nefarious got through was not lost on those who stand their posts at the ports of entry along the border with an equally important mission and steely-eyed focus.
“A lot of the officers who worked this operation, do this on a day-to-day basis. It’s part of their duties at the port,” she said, adding many of her CBP officer colleagues stayed at the ports of entry to keep an eye out there as well. “We still had our border mission.”
Another issue CBP watched for at the game was human trafficking. This serious crime that includes modern slavery and prostitution – many times involving underaged and unable-to-defend-themselves victims – is a high priority for CBP, even when all the nation’s focus is elsewhere.
“Our agency’s efforts fall into our established, rigorous border security mission, irrespective of the location, events, etc., albeit with far more emphasis on backgrounds, associates, vehicles, and crossing histories of individuals previously linked to human trafficking,” said Chief CBP Officer Sonia Peterson, the lead for CBP’s anti-human trafficking efforts at the Super Bowl. “The true value of such an effort is immeasurable, particularly for the victims and their families. We work collaboratively, with a clear mission of identifying human traffickers and coming to the aid of the victims, before they are lost in the horrible world of sex trade.”
Peterson said CBP officers are trained to look for things that are out of place, while simultaneously thinking outside the box for any number of possible concealment methods or discrepancies in documents.
“Information received is rarely the whole story, so it’s up to professionals in our agency to recognize those valuable nuggets of information that can make a difference,” she said.
CBP officers and Border Patrol agents are trained to look for several signs of possible human trafficking. A victim:
- Lacks control of identification documents or travel documents
- Lacks freedom of movement
- Shows signs of having been abused or physically assaulted. Such signs range from the more obvious, such as broken bones, to the more subtle, such as branding or tattooing
- Seems submissive or fearful in the presence of others
Beyond these signs, officers and agents are taught how to ask the right questions and follow up on answers given. Furthermore, they’re taught to look for telltale signs: children coming off a long, tiring flight being too well-behaved while waiting in line, how people are interacting with each other – especially if someone is acting too shy or submissive, as well one person not letting the others speak and controlling the travel documents. But the officers and agents are also taught to recognize cultural differences from the American standard, or the lead person in the group might be the only one who speaks English well enough. Screening people is a very fine art of looking for subtleties.
“The smallest bit of information could literally be the difference between life and death,” Peterson said.
A fake Vince Lombardi Trophy stands above a table of counterfeit souvenirs as the Department of Homeland Security, CBP and the NFL hosted a press conference to discuss Operation Team Player to inform the public of elicit sales of fake NFL branded products, such as souvenirs, in advance of Super Bowl LVII in Phoenix, Arizona, Feb. 8. Photo by Glenn Fawcett
Another key piece of the Super Bowl security puzzle solved by CBP was intercepting counterfeit merchandise. From counterfeit NFL jerseys to championship rings to all sorts of souvenirs and memorabilia, CBP officers were the frontline to detect and stop these illicit goods. They worked with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations agents and local law enforcement partners to stop vendors selling counterfeit NFL merchandise in and around the stadium campus, as well as looking at shippers, importers, warehouse operators and others involved in the manufacturing, distribution and sales of the merchandise.
The officers looked for signs that merchandise might not be the real deal – the seams and stitching on jerseys that aren’t quite right, fake holograms on the “official” NFL tags, and poor-quality fabric, just to name a few things they check for.
CBP officials explained counterfeit merchandise pose economic impacts, legal implications, and health and safety risks to American businesses and consumers. While it might seem like a “victimless” crime, they were quick to point out that the trafficking of counterfeits put money into the pockets of criminal organizations. Counterfeiting merchandise is the most lucrative transnational criminal activity in the world, generating approximately $1 trillion in illegal profits for criminal organizations – that estimation is billions of dollars higher than the illegal profits generated annually by the second most lucrative transnational criminal activity, drug trafficking. That money is used by criminals for more nefarious activities, including more drug smuggling and even terrorist activities. CBP uses technology and trained people to identify counterfeit products at the border, not only for the Super Bowl, but every day to enable economic prosperity and safeguard the public from dangerous goods, while also keeping the ill-gotten profits out of criminal organizations’ hands.
CBP officials were also quick to point to the coordination with other federal, state and local law enforcement partners before, during and after the game as key to the success of operations at the Super Bowl – just like they do for operations along the border every day.
“CBP relies heavily on partnerships to succeed in its mission,” Modlin said. “Whether that is Border Patrol or Air and Marine Operations or our Office of Field Operations, those partnerships with law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other countries’ officials are developed over years and years. Working in that environment makes us very uniquely qualified to work an event with so many agencies coming together to ensure the safety of the game.”
Supervisory CBP Officer Randall Hardy, the planning section chief for all of CBP’s efforts at the Super Bowl, concurred.
“We weren’t trying to run the entire event, but instead let the state and local agencies do their jobs,” he said. “We came in and gave them the extra support they needed from a federal point of view.”
Hardy pointed out this coordination started about a year ago, and they are already planning for next year’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas.
“We’re starting to put together some things for it, and it’s that kind of reaching out and looking forward that helps make sure we have everything we need, and it comes together seamlessly,” he said.
Peterson said it’s something they do every day.
“The collaborative efforts, specific to the Super Bowl, with federal, state, and local partners are what sets our efforts apart,” Peterson said. “It offers a unique opportunity for a multi-agency, anti-sex trafficking operation to bring our capabilities and collective assets together to target offenders and work toward victim identification and rescue.”
Despite being tasked with the monumental job of security for such a high-profile event, like a no-look pass from the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes – or maybe the Eagles’ Jason Kelce’s read of the defense from his offensive center position – Modlin said they were still able to keep an eye on anybody with bad intentions miles away from the stadium, such as the border region just south of the game, even if it didn’t look like they were watching.
“Our participation in securing the Super Bowl did not impact CBP’s primary mission of protecting the American people, safeguarding our borders, and enhancing the nation’s economic prosperity,” he said. “We remained committed to that mission while we assisted with securing the Super Bowl.”
It was another win that wouldn’t have been possible without his team: the resilient men and women under his command who did their jobs.
“It might seem on the surface that this was a less stressful event than routine CBP operations,” Modlin said. “However, the people who kept the Super Bowl safe and secure are disciplined professionals who worked tirelessly to do this. People who were at home or at the game should know that there are federal, state and local agencies that worked diligently to keep fans, players and officials safe … just like we do every day.”