Martin Delgado and his gang of drug smugglers for years easily breached the security seals on cargo containers, smuggling massive amounts of cocaine into the marine terminals in Hampton Roads and other U.S. ports.
Delgado and several others were indicted recently in what's believed to be the largest drug-smuggling ring ever uncovered at Norfolk International Terminals. More than 275 pounds of cocaine and heroin were seized by the federal government.
Although security at the nation's ports has improved in the past five years, the recent bust raises a tough question for homeland security experts: If drugs are still smuggled through ports by the thousands of pounds each year, what's to stop a terrorist from slipping a radiological "dirty" bomb into a container?
"We need to be able to mitigate the worst risks to our facilities and population first," says Steven Mondul, deputy assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness. "Obviously, looking at WMDs."
Much of what makes its way through Richmond comes through the much larger Port of Virginia in Norfolk, where the containers are first screened for radioactive materials.
"There are normally on the order of four or five [containers] a week that are flagged at the initial level," Mondul says. To date, he adds, more thorough investigations have yet to turn up terrorist threats.
Toilet bowls are typically the culprit for false alarms. A material used in porcelain processing indicates that it might be radioactive when it's not.
When containers come from somewhere other than Norfolk, the Richmond port screens them with a special truck with a cherry-picker extension that passes over the container.
Still, the plastic seals used on the containers present a security problem. The problem is that "the bolt seals are easily defeated and you don't know it happened," says Barry Wilkins, vice president for homeland security for Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations in Arlington.
"The bolt seals that are required today do not keep the bad guys out of containers," he says. "It's probably easy right now to put something into a container."
"It's kind of a race between the people who make the seals and the people who are looking for ways to get in there," Mondul says. "In addition to that there's a cost factor. It would be easy enough to have break-proof seals," but it's more expensive.
Those huge, rectangular box containers arrive at Richmond, Norfolk and other U.S. ports stacked to the sky on top of cargo vessels. They come from Northern Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Mexico and South America. The U.S. government has agreements with about 50 ports to ensure the integrity of cargo that leaves those facilities.
Panama, where Delgado and others managed to slip drugs into containers during ship transfers, is not yet on that list. According to indictments unsealed in federal court Jan. 29 and other court records, Delgado and his associates were able to break the container seals, place the drugs inside and secure the doors with a new seal.
Seals contain a security number that is supposed to match numbers on ship records. Port authorities were discovering that the seal numbers on containers with drugs inside did not match the records.
Delgado and co-conspirator Omar Petter have pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to drug distribution charges and are awaiting sentencing. Federal authorities last week announced the arrests of seven others charged in the ongoing investigation into drug smuggling at the ports of Hampton Roads and Charleston, S.C.
Officials in Norfolk point out that the case, with more than 275 pounds of drugs seized, still pales compared with cases at ports in Miami.
In the past two years, authorities have seized about 15,000 pounds of narcotics at Miami-area ports, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Drug seizures in that time at ports in the region north of Miami, including Norfolk and Savannah, Ga., totaled just less than 900 pounds.
Customs and immigration authorities said they have no way of knowing what quantity of drugs actually made it past security at Norfolk International Terminals and Portsmouth Marine Terminal, where federal officials say Delgado enlisted longshoremen and truck drivers to get the drugs out.
"I hope there is no more coming in," says Mike Netherland, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which headed the investigation.
"The reality is, we are the third-largest port on the East Coast," Netherland says. "It pays for us to be vigilant."
Security experts have warned that terrorists have considered using a container to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into the United States even through a trustworthy shipping company, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
"Drug smugglers have been known to employ this strategy to disguise their contraband in otherwise legitimate cargo," the report says.
Ed Merkle, director of port security and emergency operations for the Virginia Port Authority, says $22 million has been invested in port security here since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The authority owns the Norfolk and Portsmouth terminals. The Port of Richmond is owned by the city of Richmond and overseen by the Richmond Port Authority.
Despite the investment, issues remain with the seals that are designed to ensure that the cargo container doors have not been breached. Merkle says that although 100 percent of container seals are inspected to ensure they are intact, it's difficult to ensure that a seal has not been tampered with.
Port security authorities have yet to establish a 100 percent check that the numbers on seals match numbers on ship records.
"The system today is not intelligent enough to say what the seal number is," Merkle says. "It's very difficult to ensure what the last seal was. That's the next step. But that's a very challenging problem.
Wilkins, of Pinkerton, suggests that shipping companies and ports move toward a higher-security bolt seal that is not as easily tampered with, as well as a device that uses radio frequencies that can tell when a container has been breached.
Pinkerton has managed $70 million in security grants for ports in New York and New Jersey, Seattle, and Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif.
"It would be much harder to get access to the containers," he says.
The Virginia Port Authority has a radio frequency security system that checks containers as they enter and leave Virginia ports. Plans call for installing sensors that record any time a container door has been opened, the Virginia Port Authority says. S
Tim McGlone is a staff writer with the Virginian-Pilot. Amy Biegelsen contributed to this story.