EL PASO — The flowers that decorate offices, homes and restaurants along the Mexico border have been inspected as closely at border crossings as many door panels and car trunks, well-known hiding places used by drug mules to export heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
In the weeks before Valentine’s Day, flower shipments passing through Mexico and into the United States have surged. But nestled in those floral arrangements may be tiny pests and diseases that can wreak havoc with domestic plants in the United States. The job of preventing those pests from entering the country falls to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who inspect all plants that pass through the border crossings in Texas and elsewhere.
“When it is an aggressive disease or insect that finds a preferred host on crops that are grown in specific states, if the condition and the environment is what it likes, the spread of disease or insect is quite quick,” said Katherine Vasquez, a customs supervisor of agricultural inspectors in El Paso, where inspectors in 2013 made about 54,300 quarantine-eligible interceptions and found about 4,330 pests.
In 2013, agents processed more than 867 million cut flower stems nationally during what it considers Valentine’s season (Jan. 1 to Feb. 14). That was an increase of about 3 percent from 2012.
Most of the imported flowers are from South America, primarily Colombia and Ecuador.
And while the ports at Miami and Los Angeles receive the greatest number of flowers, entry ports in Laredo and Pharr rank No. 4 and No. 8.
Mexico’s proximity to Texas presents an unusual challenge because flower shipments may also arrive at crossings in small bunches carried by shoppers — not just in large shipments — which increases the workload for inspectors.
“Street vendors from various parts in Mexico will arrive with truckloads of these products for sale on streets leading to the border crossings,” Customs said in a statement released during a news media event showcasing the floral inspections in El Paso.
Most of what comes through Texas ports is intended for regional markets and subject to quarantine if the flowers are thought to harbor spreadable diseases.
A common foe is the Asian citrus psyllid, the vector for the disease commonly known as citrus greening, which destroys citrus trees and their fruit. In Florida alone, the disease has been responsible for about $3.6 billion in lost revenue since 2006, according to a University of Florida study.
Agents within the agricultural inspection division of Customs must hold a bachelor’s degree in one of several specialties, including botany, agricultural entomology, chemistry and natural resources management. A combination of study in those sciences and work experience in fields like environmental monitoring or pest control is also acceptable. Ruben Jauregui, a public affairs specialist with Customs, said that although advanced training requirements meant the inspectors were more difficult to hire, the ports were staffed with what they needed.
“Like any other corporation or government agency, can you use more? Absolutely,” Jauregui said. “But we do have them in the pipeline within the new budget.”
Officers added that even though plant life appeared to be a likely place to hide contraband, smugglers were smart enough to know that it was more likely to be scrutinized.
“You’re guaranteed, almost 100 percent, an inspection,” Vasquez said. “So usually it hasn’t been one of the methods they prefer.”