About Caucus







March 21, 2001

America at Risk: The Ecstasy Threat

Chuck Winwood
Acting Commissioner
U.S. Customs Service

Chairman Grassley, Senator Biden, members of the Caucus, thank you for this opportunity to testify.

Before I begin, I want to thank the Caucus for its vital support of the Customs Service and law enforcement in general as we contend with Ecstasy and other international narcotics threats.

The U.S. Customs Service has vigorously tracked the flow of Ecstasy into the United States since the drug first began appearing at our borders in substantial quantities in the late 1990s.

Almost negligible five years ago, Customs seizures of the drug have skyrocketed. As you can see from this chart, we’ve gone from seizing about four hundred thousand Ecstasy tablets in 1997, to 3 and a half million tablets in 1999, to well over 9 million tablets in 2000. With a little more than half our current fiscal year to go, we have seized three and a half million tablets.

It would be logical to assume that with more Ecstasy coming into the country, overall seizures would rise. But that simple explanation doesn’t do justice to the combined efforts of law enforcement to disrupt the Ecstasy trade. Many of our biggest seizures of Ecstasy to date have been the product of better targeting, fed by intelligence shared between Customs, the DEA, the FBI and state and local authorities.

Customs has complemented this exemplary interagency cooperation by improving coordination internally. As you know, our agency is spread over 301 ports of entry in the United States. Ensuring that all those locations receive the most updated information and the latest trends is one of our biggest challenges.

For that reason, last year we created the Customs Ecstasy Task Force. The task force is composed of representatives from the major disciplines involved in counterdrug activity: agents and intelligence analysts from our Office of Investigations and inspectors from our Office of Field Operations. Task force members ensure that any information and activity pertaining to Ecstasy is collected every morning at Customs under one roof.

We also communicate regularly with law enforcement overseas. Working in conjunction with DEA, we have stepped up our contacts with Israeli, German, and Dutch police, as well as our use of Interpol as a source of information. Last year, we sent our Ecstasy task force to the Netherlands for one month to build on our relationship with authorities in the primary source country.

On the domestic front, one major consequence of the Ecstasy flow for Customs is that we’ve had to completely reassess those commercial flights we once considered "low-risk." Now, in addition to focusing on the traditional source countries for narcotics, we’re paying much closer attention to former non-source countries and flights from known Ecstasy hubs such as Amsterdam, Paris, and Frankfurt.

No doubt we will have to continue to expand that field as we put pressure on the traffickers. That’s very typical of the drug trade. When squeezed on one route, they will quickly turn to others. We’ve already seen the Dominican Republic develop as a major transshipment point for Ecstasy. Curacao and Surinam also remain popular despite some decline in overall seizures from those countries. Canada has also become a point of concern of late.

One of the added difficulties with Ecstasy is that the drug’s compact size and shape make concealment options almost infinite. You can see some of the more creative methods we’ve come across here on the table before you.

So compact, and so profitable is the drug that more and more people are willing to take a chance on smuggling it into the country. That makes the traffickers’ job of recruiting couriers very easy. Just last Friday, Customs officers in Miami referred a seventy-one year old man arriving on a flight from Paris for secondary inspection. That inspection revealed a false-bottom compartment in the suitcase he was carrying. The compartment was packed with over sixty-one thousand Ecstasy tablets – three times the amount of tablets contained in this bag – with a street value of well over a million dollars.

Last year, we began to train Customs’ drug-sniffing dogs to alert to Ecstasy. Under a pilot program, we trained 94 dogs to detect the drug, and stationed them at major international airports and mail facilities around the country. We hope to have all 544 of our canines trained for Ecstasy by the end of this year.

Our success in deterring Ecstasy will likely only increase the smugglers’ desperation. Evidence of that can be found already in the growing number of Ecstasy swallowers we’ve encountered lately. This method was previously confined to couriers transporting cocaine and heroin. Like those carriers, Ecstasy swallowers pack the tablets into small latex balloons, which they ingest in order to evade detection by Customs.

The comparisons between Ecstasy and the cocaine trade in this and other respects are worth considering as we ponder our future response to this threat. As was the case with cocaine in the 1980s, Ecstasy is fast becoming a very large and very lucrative criminal enterprise.

What was once ad hoc smuggling by small-time dealers and users has mushroomed into organized trafficking by criminals. They now have the money and the infrastructure to market Ecstasy beyond the club scenes in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles.

The motive of the club owners who help traffickers push Ecstasy is obvious. They are in it for the money. So it is not surprising that we have seen them come under the spell of organized crime. But the traffickers are also aided by another, more unlikely source. They include social scientists and others in the so-called "harm reduction" movement who claim that the real damage is caused not by Ecstasy and its pushers, but by the laws designed to curtail them.

This line of argument has given rise to the myth that American law enforcement is out to criminalize the "harmless" experimental behavior of a whole generation of young Americans. But we are not out to jail teenagers who make the mistake of experimenting with Ecstasy. We are out to jail the traffickers and their partners in crime, who without a qualm would risk the health and safety of our children for an easy dollar.

Seen in that light, our mission today is really two-fold. The first part of that mission is to continue to do all we can to disrupt the flow of Ecstasy and bring the traffickers to justice. The second is to convey an important message to the public: that Ecstasy is dangerous, and that dangerous people are trying to convince our children to use it.

Certainly, the ongoing efforts of this Caucus to raise awareness of the Ecstasy threat will help us to drive this message home. Continued education and outreach to parents and children are also crucial, as Customs, the DEA and others are doing via information posted on our websites and by other means. In addition, the stricter sentencing laws on Ecstasy trafficking will also help us send a message -- this one to the criminal groups who so callously put America’s youth at risk and believe, falsely, that they will not have to pay for their crimes.

Thank you again for this opportunity to testify. I look forward to answering any questions you might have.