Smugglers probing SENTRI for flaws

As the maroon Kia Optima crept toward the United States in a lane designed to speed people through the San Ysidro port of entry, the world's busiest border crossing, two weeks ago, an inspector noticed trouble.

The government's computerized Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection system, or SENTRI, didn't recognize the transponder, a device the size of a cigarette pack used to identify the car, on Jhuliana Aramis Cohen's windshield.

The inspector sent Cohen to secondary, a covered area where other inspectors open car trunks, look under the seats and use trained dogs to sniff for drugs, among other things.

When inspectors found 202 pounds of marijuana in her car, Cohen, 21, became one of an increasing number of people accused of smuggling drugs after assuring the government they wouldn't abuse the privilege of using the fast-track SENTRI lanes.

She faces smuggling charges in San Diego federal court, where she also has been sued by a man who claims her father is a fugitive who owes him millions of dollars earned through Internet pornography.

Four days after Cohen's arrest, a man tried to smuggle 280 pounds of marijuana into the country in a SENTRI lane, but ran back to Mexico after an inspector ordered him to open the trunk of his car.

The two agencies charged with protecting the border differ on the importance of the rise in such incidents in the SENTRI lanes, opened 10 years ago to separate trusted travelers from everyone else crossing the border.

Those in the program carry special passes and attach the transponders to their cars.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest investigative agency within the Department of Homeland Security, is working to find out who is behind the SENTRI smuggling.

"It's a concern," ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said. "We're working closely with the border inspectors to follow up on these arrests. Our goal is to locate the criminal organization responsible for targeting SENTRI."

Adele Fasano, director of field operations for California's border crossings, said she's not alarmed.

Only 11 people with SENTRI passes tried to smuggle drugs or people from Oct. 1, when the federal fiscal year begins, through June 30, she said.

There were eight such cases in the last fiscal year.

Much more of a problem is the huge number of people who smuggle drugs and humans through the other lanes, over which the vast majority of vehicles cross after waiting in longer lines, she said. Fasano said 8,190 such cases have been reported this fiscal year.

Eighteen people without passes have been caught with drugs in the SENTRI lanes in the same time period.

Smugglers' 'adventure'

About 63,000 people have obtained SENTRI passes by paying $129, answering a lengthy questionnaire, providing proof of U.S. or foreign citizenship, income and other documents and having fingerprints and photographs taken.

When SENTRI subscribers cross into the United States, their pictures come up on a computer screen in front of the border inspector, and they can be approved for entry in about 10 seconds. It can take 40 seconds to pass in the regular lanes, according to the Customs and Border Protection Web site.

The program is so popular that officials recently doubled the number of SENTRI lanes at San Ysidro to four.

Smugglers have targeted it before.

The Baja California attorney general's office said police discovered several transponders, license plates and pictures explaining how to get through the border in a stolen car found in Tijuana last year.

Fasano said it wouldn't work because the car, the transponder and the people in the car all have to match. Stolen transponders can't be used by smugglers to enter the United States, she said.

"It's almost an automatic ticket to secondary," Fasano said.

Victor Clark Alfaro, who oversees the Tijuana-based Binational Center of Human Rights, said SENTRI can be an avenue for drug smugglers who target young upper-and middle-class people who cross the border frequently.

Young people "are seeking high-adrenaline adventures. . . . It's not the money, it's the adventure of doing it," he said. no es el dinero, es la aventura de hacerlo."

When she was stopped June 22, Cohen told authorities she agreed to smuggle the marijuana to San Diego for $500.

A federal judge released Cohen on June 29 on $25,000 bail and ordered her not to enter Mexico or leave San Diego County.

Pornography money

Cohen was sued June 28 by a businessman who says her father, Stephen Michael Cohen, stole, a pornography Web site worth millions of dollars, from him and fled to Mexico after losing a court battle.

A federal judge in San Jose ordered Stephen Cohen to pay Gary Kremen $65 million and issued an arrest warrant when Cohen didn't show up in court.

Kremen, who also founded and sold the dating Web site, gained control of the Cohen's Rancho Santa Fe home, where he said Jhuliana once lived.

In a declaration asking a judge to appoint a lawyer to defend her, Jhuliana Cohen said she earned about $1,000 a month working for an insurance company, but that she lives rent-free and her "parents pay for most expenses."

In his lawsuit, Kremen says Jhuliana Cohen has some of her father's money and other assets and he wants her to pay up.

He said Stephen Cohen pays his daughter's credit card bills and has put real estate, partnerships and business interests in her name.

For instance, he said, Stephen Cohen bought a 35 percent interest in a Tijuana strip club, the Bolero, for $800,000 and put it in his daughter's name.

Corporate records in Nevada list Jhuliana Cohen, with a San Ysidro address, as the president of a corporation called Mexico Lending Ltd. The company was registered late last year. Further information was unavailable.

The Cohen case illustrates problems in the SENTRI system, Kremen said.

"You'd think you'd pick up in the application process someone whose family is a fugitive," he said. "What kind of checking do they really do?"

Kremen said Stephen Cohen lives in Tijuana and calls him once in a while, as recently as two weeks ago.

Fasano said the database of SENTRI participants is checked daily against lists of wanted criminals. Their relatives are not.

Fasano wouldn't talk about how Jhuliana Cohen got into the SENTRI program.

"It's hard to comment on something like that without the specifics," she said.

She said having a relative with a criminal background doesn't automatically disqualify people from the program.

"It depends on the totality of circumstances," she said.

But a Customs and Border Protection spokesman said later that people with close ties to criminals don't typically qualify for SENTRI passes.