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Commercial vehicles at Santa Teresa to be scanned

A truck carrying produce from Mexico drives through a scanning device at the port of entry in Santa Teresa in 2016. The port is about to get upgraded scanning technology. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Only about 15% of commercial vehicles entering the United States are scanned  for illegal contraband each year.

But that is about to change, at least at the Santa Teresa port of entry in New Mexico.

The port will be receiving an upgrade in its non-intrusive inspection technology that will allow Customs and Border Protection officials to scan all commercial vehicles entering the country from Mexico.

“This will give an officer a much better picture of what is coming into the country before it gets to him,” said Barry Miller, assistant director of field operations at the CBP El Paso field office. “It gives him a much better risk assessment, whether or not to refer this truck into a cargo dock to spend an hour or an hour and a half being unloaded and loaded back up.”

The upgrade comes as part of pilot program funded by a congressional appropriation of $570 million in fiscal 2019, U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small said during a press call. NII technology is being tested at five ports of entry. The NII equipment will be tested at Santa Teresa in fiscal 2021.

The new scanning equipment will not cause a delay in traffic at the port, said Christopher Sullivan, director of the NII Division, Cargo and Conveyance Security.

“Right now, pre-primary scanning (before documents are checked) is only done for radiation,” Sullivan said. “We will have X-ray equipment now in the pre-primary lanes. So, it will be scanning every vehicle that comes through commercial lanes.”

Port Director Fernando Thome said Santa Teresa was averaging about 600 commercial vehicles and 1,000 passenger vehicles a day.

NII technology on passenger vehicles will be tested at another port of entry. Nationally, only 1% of passenger vehicles are scanned. More than 3% are scanned in the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, Hector A. Mancha Jr., El Paso director of field operations, said during a hearing last fall.

Torres Small said the technology being tested at Santa Teresa will allow officers to scan for “lethal drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl, which is the primary driver of the opioid crisis, coming through our land ports of entry.”

“With this new technology, officers will be able to scan more of the cargo within our ports of entry before entering New Mexico and that will dramatically lower the amount of illegal contraband that is being smuggled into our state,” she said.

Sullivan called technology “a game-changer.”

“This helps us identify a substance like fentanyl without touching,” he said. “This technology allows us to go into place like dashboards that we weren’t able to go before.”

Santa Teresa currently has NII technology that allows officers to scan after the initial primary inspection where documents are first checked.

Torres Small and Thome said the technology was instrumental in helping an officer seize 26 pounds of methamphetamine at the port in June.

The drugs were hidden in the cargo space of a vehicle that was entering New Mexico.

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