Rewind: What Guarding Uncle Sam's Borders Was Like in 1925

This 1925 feature from Seniorhelpline documents the competing armies of outlaws and lawmen trying to one-up one another at the border. A JFK customs agent tell us what's changed—and what hasn't—over nearly a century of border security.

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Seniorhelpline

U.S. border security is as complex—and possibly even more debated—a topic now as it was in January, 1925 when this story first ran in Seniorhelpline. While the current border debate centers on immigration, this story high­lighted the shrewdness of smugglers and the customs agents hunting them. (Scroll down for a 2019 update on smuggling tech from an agent at the JFK Airport Border Enforcement Security Task Force.)

JANUARY 1925: A battle of wits that extends around the world is ceaselessly fought by the forces of Uncle Sam and the smugglers’ army. Thousands of men, keen of brain and firm of purpose, are enlisted on both sides, spending vast sums of money, and operating entire navies on the seas, and airplanes and motor fleets on land.

Three government services—the Customs, Coast Guard, and Prohibition Bureau—are directly involved in the battle to keep out contraband articles and collect the frontier tolls on others. Assisting them are the Department of Justice, with its own worldwide system of secret agents, and the post office department, whose inspectors exercise constant vigilance to keep the mails closed to the smuggler. Just how much revenue is lost annually by the government through the activities of smugglers, or the total value of forbidden merchandise brought into the country, is not known and cannot even be guessed, but the government itself admits the total is quite large.

With Uncle Sam’s new rum-chasing navy now in action, the government forces expect a decided drop in the list of successful smugglers. The government was handicapped for a time by lack of high-speed craft and men to man them, but this deficiency has now been met.

Thousands of men, keen of brain and firm of purpose, are enlisted on both sides

Until the passage of the Harrison antinarcotic law, jewels led the list of smuggled articles passing American borders, both because their smallness made concealment easy, and because the high duties on jewels offered an opportunity for big profits—if successful. Jewel smuggling, however, like any smuggling designed merely to evade duties, was confined to a comparatively small professional class, with now and then an occasional traveler who attempted to bring in something for his own use. When the Harrison law put an absolute ban on the importation of narcotics except for medicinal use, it opened a new field that put smuggling on its modern, highly organized, and desperate basis. The drug smugglers were often addicts, ready to go to any lengths to bring in the “dope” they craved. About the same time, the Asiatic exclusion act started the alien-smuggling business on an organized scale, through the willingness of people from China and Southeast Asia to pay as high as $200 to $500 each to get into the United States. The so-called gentlemen’s agreement with Japan opened up a field for the occasional smuggling of Japanese laborers—a field that has been greatly enlarged since the passage of the recent exclusion act. It remained, however, for the Prohibition law to put smuggling on a plane where thousands of men are employed in trying to outwit the government, and more thousands to enforce the law. Everything from ocean­going steamships to rowboats and from fleets of fast automobiles to airplanes was impressed into service. The new order came so suddenly that there was no international law to cover it, and until new treat­ies were negotiated, the govern­ment faced a losing fight at times.

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Border police, trained to suspect the most ordinary parcels, are giving a supply of potatoes the third degree in their drive against smuggling across an international bridge. Seniorhelpline 1925.
Seniorhelpline

Until an agreement was reached with Canada by which the sister country has taken steps to block violations of our law, it was not unusual for the skipper of a small row­boat to load a few cases at a Canadian river port, take out clearance papers for Cuba or some other foreign land, and then row across to the American side with his cargo. All that has been stopped by the new international agreement. Under the age-old international law, the rum ships in the Atlantic and Pacific could anchor but three miles from shore and in plain sight of the coast sell their cargoes to motorboats and rowboats from land. With a fast motorboat, even in broad daylight, an enterprising smuggler from Long Island and the New Jersey villages could go out and take on a cargo and then race the revenue cutters to shore and unload before the slower government boats could catch up. But the government proceeded to negotiate new treaties extending American jurisdiction against smugglers to an hour’s sailing, or about fifteen miles to sea, enormously increasing the difficulties of the small boats of the smugglers, while the new rum-chasing navy of high-speed boats, armed with one-pound rapid-fire guns, can overhaul them in the fifteen-mile chase, or, if the enemy seems disposed to show his heels, a shot or two is enough to make the most daring come to a halt.

The seagoing defense forces are backed on land by Prohibition forces and the Customs agents, who not only patrol the landing places along the coast but guard the thousands of miles of Canadian and Mexican frontiers. Fantastic tales have been circulated of devices to circumvent the Prohibition forces. Nearly every seaport has its story, usually vague, of a rum-running submarine, while along the Detroit River boatmen tell weird, and probably untrue, tales of liquor being shot across from Canada in torpedoes, or pumped over through a submarine pipe. The fact that motorboats have been used so extensively to ferry the wet cargoes over from the Canadian shore would indicate that both tales are false.

While liquor, foreigners, and drugs continue to hold the center of the stage, both because of the spectacular nature of the smuggling operations and the great profits the smugglers are rumored to have made, Uncle Sam’s border guards are on the lookout for many other things.

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How a 1920s lawbreaker deceives the revenue officers hunting for his still: disguising his feet as cow hooves.
Seniorhelpline

Every ship that clears from a foreign port, and every mailbag from overseas, is a potential carrier of contraband. Deep in the hold of the incoming ship a bale of rags, invoiced as paper stock, may conceal a score of narcotics, liquor, jewelry, forbidden bird plumes, obscene books, or any one of a hundred other articles, either forbidden or heavily taxed. A packing case of china may open as Scotch whisky; boxes of gloves may reveal rare jewels. Much ingenuity and a wide knowledge of the workings of the Customs laws and service are displayed by the professional smugglers. Ten percent of each shipment of freight is sent to the appraisers’ stores for examination, and, as the boxes or packages are chosen at random, there apparently is not much chance for the smuggler to escape detection. One narcotic smuggler, however, shipped a large number of bales of merchandise bearing a low rate of duty, with a supply of drugs concealed in each. Posing as an importer, and armed with a certified invoice and bill of lading, he visited a customhouse broker, gave the name of a client, and asked the broker to enter the goods for him. He paid the duty and charges, and the broker cleared the goods and surrendered the bales to the smuggler. As only 10 percent of the shipment was retained, the man got 90 percent of his drugs, and by the time the appraiser’s examination disclosed the drugs in the packages retained, the smuggler and his narcotics had disappeared. A pearl smuggler bought his supplies at an island off the Central American coast, took ship for New York via Puerto Rico, where a confederate received the gems. As the confederate had boarded the ship at an American port and had not been outside American territory, he was not subject to examination at New York, while the smuggler was able to pass with a clean bill, despite the most careful search of his person and luggage.

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Coast Guard watch in a lighthouse tower scanning a long stretch of shore waters in search of outlaw craft that ply illegal trade between isolated inlets and contraband vessels anchored outside of forbidden zones.
Seniorhelpline

The Customs service now has agents scattered all over the world. They keep watch in Paris, London, and other foreign cities for professional smugglers, or for large purchases of rare gems by rich travelers, and cable the information to New York. If a traveler who has purchased a pearl necklace or some diamonds in Paris fails to declare the jewels on landing in the United States, trouble is ahead.

During 1923, the Customs service made 643 arrests and obtained 351 convictions, with 182 cases still pending.


The 2019 Update: Modern Smugglers

We asked a Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent on the John F. Kennedy Airport’s Border Enforcement Security Task Force team to tell us about the new ways smugglers attempt to get narcotics into the U.S. He came back with this story about diplomas.

In 2012, I’d been working Ecuador cases for a while when we received information on an individual named Jorge Guerrero, a lost-luggage handler at JFK, who was importing parcels of narcotics into the U.S. from Ecuador. His organization used several methods. It was smart. One package was cocaine-stuffed empanadas. There was cocaine concealed in candy bars, which I’d seen before. The nuts were creative, too—they put heroin in nuts. When we seized a box of scuba-diving diplomas, we didn’t know what we were looking at. There was a certain smell to them, which I recognized as cocaine. I’d seen liquid cocaine before, but this organization had soaked the diplomas in over three pounds of it and then let them dry. That’s the first time I’d seen that.

One package was cocaine-stuffed empanadas.

There are dozens of express consignment stores in the tristate area that function like a private UPS, only for parcels from Ecuador. You don’t need a name or an address, and most stores don’t ask for ID. In this case, the organization used false names and addresses on packages that were sent on commercial airliners, then Guerrero picked them up at the stores. Guerrero must have been doing this for a while because he was too comfortable. At first, he used code words on the phone, like “wedding dress” for cocaine and “brown wedding dress” for heroin, but after a while he would straight out say it. On intercepted overseas phone calls with Ecuador, we’d hear them say the name or tracking number for each parcel, too.

Overall, we seized $400,000 worth of cocaine and heroin from the same guy. He didn’t figure it out and kept ordering more. It comes down to greed. A kilo of cocaine in Ecuador went for $3,000 back then. Once it made it to the U.S., that same kilo sold for $25,000 to $28,000 and a kilo of heroin for $50,000. It’s good incentive to be creative. —As Told To Rachel Sturtz


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