In the last six months, I have been to Colombia 8 times. I met a girl, Kathe, who was only supposed to show me around when I went there the first time back in September, but who is now my girlfriend. An international trip every three to four weeks is a bit taxing on my wallet, but hey, I’m trying to make this work. So, as you may rightly assume, traveling between one of the cocaine capitals of the world and New York gets me hassled frequently by the US CBP.
Usually, when you get stamped back in at the airport, you go to the luggage area to pick up any checked baggage that you may have. Once you pick that up, you take your declarations card(the one where you state if you are carrying food, or been in proximity to livestock, etc.), and you hand it in to the Customs and Border Protection Agent, which is your final inconvenience before you leave the airport (actually, the taxi fares are pretty inconvenient from JFK). There are some times, however, where they randomly pick a person out of the group and check the bags by hand. They have tables on the side where they bring you over and thoroughly check the contents of all your belongings.
This past Tuesday, I arrived at JFK at 6:00 am after leaving Colombia on the red-eye the night before. I got my passport stamped back in, went past the baggage claim (I did not have any checked baggage), and hurried toward the final agent before my freedom. There was a group of people coming towards the agent from the left side of the room, so I ran around the right to try to secure my place in line ahead of the crowd. As I approached the CBP officer, a woman with CBP came up behind me, and she asked for me to step over to one of the tables. I became slightly annoyed, and I asked her if I was getting bothered because I was coming from Colombia. She told me that she saw me walking alone as I tried to exit, and that sparked her interest in me.
We went over to the table, and as she started opening my carry-on, she proceeded to ask me several questions. I told her that I was there to visit my girlfriend. She took all of my clothes out of the luggage, and took a long metal stick and started poking inside the lining of my bag. This tool is best described as something similar to the gauge where you check the oil levels in a car. The end of the stick has some ridges, and when you poke it into a bag like mine, if there is any cocaine hidden in the frame of the bag, it will puncture the packaging, and the ridges will have the white stuff as it is pulled out. I was sort of pissed, as this crude tool was puncturing my nice Samsonite luggage. This is 2011 in New York City; don’t we have some techier technology to find the blow in my bag?
Anyways, after satisfied that I had nothing on me (or maybe dissatisfied, she seemed very determined that I had something), she continued to ask me questions. When she looked at my passport she raised her eyebrows when she saw all the stamps in the last few months from Colombia. Then she asked me what I do for a living to afford what appeared to her as extravagance, and that is where this whole situation took a turn for the worse. You see, I lost my day job in January, and was just living off savings for a while. One of my friends and I started a new company, and as we were getting all the legalities sorted out, I was unemployed. Actually, that same day, Tuesday, was going to be my first actual day back at work, as all our paperwork was finalized. I timed my trip so that I could spend as much time with my girlfriend as possible, and not miss any part of the start of the new company.
So, back to Ms. CBP. She asked how I could afford a trip to Colombia every three weeks; what did I do for a living? I blushed as I told her that I was unemployed. She left the table and went to her boss, and a few minutes later, she and three other men came over, grabbed my things, and told me that they were taking me into a room for further interrogation. With a defeated feeling, I marched in the midst of them towards the room.
When we got in the room, I felt as if I was a criminal. The room was padded on all sides, and it was only furnished with a desk near the door and a bench with handcuffs attached on the other side. I was told to go to the wall and put my hands up and on the padding with my feet spread apart. He gave me a very thorough bodily search, feeling very slowly along my appendages for any hint of something wrapped around them. Many people duct-tape drugs to their arms, legs, or torso when smuggling drugs. I was told not to move as he needs to heel along my groin. Before I registered that comment, I felt my balls firmly cupped as he narrowed down the possibilities of where the cocaine was on my person.
After the physical, it was time for the verbal. I sat down on the bench, and the head officer in the room pulled out a sheet of paper to write on. He asked me to start at the beginning, so I did. I told him when I had booked my flight, what I had paid, why I had flown. I had answered these questions already in my initial search, but I guess these guys do this to weed out any inconsistencies or lies in your story. Then we got to the meat of the matter. “How could you afford to fly internationally eight times in six months?” It was just unfathomable for a person my age with no income to afford this, even when I did have my job. I repeated what I told the first officer, that I try to be thrifty, to save up for my once monthly to visit my girlfriend, but to no avail.
I was asked the same questions over and over, in different ways. More than an hour into this mind-torture, my cooperation was reaching it’s limits. You see, I took the red-eye from Colombia, 11:20 pm and I landed at JFK at 6:30 am. I did not get much sleep on the plane. The questions seemed to be getting more and more ridiculous as my patience waned. They looked in my cell phone and asked for phone numbers of my girlfriend and my former boss. And then I lost it; I started speaking to them all with a raised voice. I yelled to them that they could call my roommates and verify that I barely went out on weekends so I could save up for these romps; I told them that I was a good kid, still in school and just trying to make a relationship work.
After my little spiel calmed me down, the lead officer just smiled at me, ripped up the paper with everything that he had written down, and told me that I could go. It took me a few seconds to comprehend what he had said, and I had to question him when I finally got it. “Really?!? That’s it?” He looked at me and asked me to try to understand what they had to deal with. They handed me back my cellular phone as I collected my things. The outrage that I had just displayed must have cleared me and proven that I was honest.
I guess, with all things considered, I find the whole 3- or 4-hour-long situation kind of amusing. It was an experience that made me better prepared for future travel. I feel that I can clear JFK in the future with ease. No, I do not hold the slightest grudge for my ordeal. These guys really do have a tough job, and they treated me professionally, kinda. I was glad as hell to leave, though.
A few hints for the future traveler who may come across US CBP or their counterparts in other countries:
- Do not talk back; rudeness will only make it harder for you in the long run
- Be completely honest; their questions are designed to trip you up, the only way to avoid problems is to tell the truth the first time, unless you trained with the CIA
- When all else fails, start acting a little angry, so long as it is righteous anger; when they break you, and you will stay there until they do, the guys that did nothing wrong get angry, whilst the ones with something to hide finally fork that information over.