EL PASO, Texas -- Some buses from Mexico are carrying more than passengers on vacation or a weekend shopping spree. Smugglers are using the buses to bring drugs into the U.S.
And the bigger the vehicle, the larger the load of drugs.
"There are a lot more compartments in a bus than a car," said Joe Raigosa, a Customs and Border Protection officer, as he waited for a bus to pull up to the border checkpoint at the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso.
"Most of the people who traffic drugs into the United States will use areas you just don't have in a car — like a commode," Raigosa explained.
Last Friday, CBP officers in El Paso found 857 pounds of marijuana in a secret compartment near the sleeping cab of the bus. A drug-sniffing dog discovered the stash.
That's a large haul, but it's not surprising, said Frank Chavez, a Customs and Border Protection officer. "We’ve had seizures about that size before," he noted.
Buses pose a special challenge for customs officers who must search the vehicle and also screen the passengers and luggage.
"Not only are the passengers searched, but the buses themselves are searched with canines, X-rays if necessary, and physical examination by our officers," Chavez said.
In the El Paso area, officers are finding buses carrying drugs, but the size of the loads is larger than in past years.
Along the Southwest border in 2010, CBP officers found 59 separate buses carrying 3,809 pounds of illegal drugs.
The following year there were 42 buses loaded with 5,587 pounds of drugs. And so far this year, officers have seized 34 buses with 4,310 pounds of drugs — mostly marijuana.
"It’s good they’re doing safety checks," said Gabriela Romero, a passenger traveling from Celaya, Guanajuato to Denver to visit her daughter.
Buses still have to go through highway checkpoints on the way to other U.S. cities, but some clearly make it beyond the border with drugs on board.
Just last month, a Montgomery County sheriff's deputy and his drug-sniffing dog Ranger discovered a million dollars worth of cocaine and heroin on a bus traveling from Houston to Chicago.
After passing through security at the border, Romero and the other passengers loaded their suitcases in the luggage compartment, boarded the bus, and continued their journey on Interstate 10.
CBP agents expect the biggest surge in buses crossings at the border Thursday through Saturday, when visitors from Mexico travel to Texas to shop. Officer Raigosa said agents will examine 15 to 18 buses on those days.