The techniques of interdiction inevitably mirror those of smugglers. Drugs enter the United States by air, land, and sea, by private vessel and commercial carrier. Interdiction must, if it is to have any substantial effect on the drug trade, act against all the modes of smuggling; otherwise smugglers will rely on the mode that is not subject to interdiction.

Interdiction has three separate elements: monitoring, detection and sorting, and pursuit and apprehension. For example, U.S. COAST GUARD ships supported by an extensive radar system patrol the Caribbean, which constitutes the major thoroughfare for smuggling from Latin America. The Coast Guard patrol vessels attempt to see, either directly or through radar, all ships moving along certain routes. This constitutes the monitoring activity. The interdictors must then sort, from all that traffic, the relatively small number that are carrying illegal drugs. Finally, they must pursue the smugglers that have been detected, arrest the personnel, and seize the drugs and the ship itself. The interdiction system is as weak as its weakest component; for example, a system that has good pursuit capacities but is unable to sort smugglers from innocents effectively will waste much of that pursuit capacity in chasing nonsmugglers. Similarly, good detection will lead to few captures without effective monitoring capabilities.

The Coast Guard and Customs Service share primary responsibility for marine and air interdiction. The Coast Guard patrols more distant routes, with Customs having a greater role in the U.S. coastal zone. Both agencies also conduct interdiction against private planes, with Customs having primary responsibility over the Mexican land border, a major trafficking area. The DEA expanded its air surveillance, having a fleet of ninety-five aircraft in 2000. The Border Patrol, a unit of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has primary responsibility for the interdiction of drugs carried in cars or on persons crossing the land border. In the late 1990s, new technology, such as x-ray machines that examine commercial vehicles, was installed at border stations in the Southwest.

Both Customs and the Border Patrol make many seizures and arrests in the course of routine inspection. For example, Customs may find a shipment of cocaine concealed inside a cargo container being unloaded in the Miami port; the Border Patrol, in the course of pursing illegal immigrants, might find a ''mule'' (a person) carrying a backpack full of cocaine or heroin. Drugs are shipped in an amazing array of forms; for example, suspended in frozen fruit pulp being imported from Ecuador or in hollowed lumber from Brazil.

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