Cyanide theft shows why tighter border is vital

The most potentially portentous news story of the last few weeks never made it beyond the briefs column or the back pages of most newspapers.

The story: A truck carrying 10 tons of cyanide briquets was hijacked on a country road outside Mexico City in mid-May. When police recovered the truck a day or two later, between 70 and 80 drums of cyanide were missing. No one knew who had stolen the truck or what -- if anything -- they intended to do with the cyanide.

Why did this seemingly mundane act of banditry have such potential import? Mainly because of the porous United States border with Mexico, through which drugs and illegal immigrants pass many times daily.

In that context, consider this: When combined with sulfuric acid, cyanide briquets are used in gas chamber executions. Just one whiff can be fatal within minutes. What if the truck had been stolen by Al Qaeda or some other terrorist group? Even though the theft occurred more than 400 miles south of the border, who could guarantee that some of the contents of those drums wouldn't make their way into California and other parts of this country?

Plus, the theft came just after U.S. embassies in New Zealand and Italy received cyanide gas threats.

Relief came about two weeks after the initial hijacking. A local cop in Honey, Mexico, happened on dozens of the blue plastic cyanide barrels, each with skulls on its sides, while looking for something quite different in a deep gully. The truck thieves, apparently unaware at first of what they'd stolen, seemingly got rid of the poison as soon as they figured out what they had. Immediate threat over. The purloined poison will go back to its normal uses in gold and silver mining.

Yet, this threat is far from really being over.

If a hapless band of bandits could lay hands on 10 tons of intense poison simply by faking a need for roadside help and inducing a sympathetic truck driver to stop -- as happened this time -- how hard would theft be for determined terrorists who plan their operations in great detail? Probably not very.

From the time the Mexican cyanide was taken until the moment it was found, the FBI and Border Patrol were on high alert to intercept anyone trying to take even part of it into America. So what?

Recent history shows that when federal immigration authorities crack down in one sector of the border, another one that's patrolled less heavily soon becomes active. Crackdowns in the San Ysidro, El Paso and Calexico areas indirectly made the rural Arizona desert the prime area for illegal immigration of the last two years, complete with scores of immigrants dying of exposure and thirst. Communications between Border Patrol units are poor, as are links to the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency.

And even with competence and vigilance along the border, it would be easy for malevolent groups to smuggle the white cyanide briquets across the border a few at a time. Dozens of adherents, each bearing small amounts carefully wrapped to avoid poisoning themselves, could bring them here, eventually accumulating a significant pile.

True, security along this nation's borders is a bit tougher than it was prior to last September 11, but it still can't compare with what now prevails in airports. And that is porous enough. Would most airline security agents know what a cyanide briquet looks like if they spotted it while searching or X-raying a carry-on? What if some were contained in checked baggage?

Here's how important this substance can be: Ramzi Yousef, one of the convicted masterminds of the first bombing of the World Trade Center, has told federal agents that if he'd had the money, he would have used sodium cyanide to create a deadly gas cloud in the huge complex rather than bombing it. And Ahmed Ressam, the Al Qaeda terrorist convicted in the thwarted millenium bomb plot against Los Angeles International Airport, testified he had been trained in cyanide poisoning while in Afghanistan.

This is a serious threat, and just because one truck hijacking turned out to be a comedy of errors doesn't reduce the potential.

The obvious implications are not only that American diplomats must work to assure that other countries control toxic gases as carefully as this country does, but also that border security must become tighter. Without both those improvements, no major building, subway or arena will ever be completely free from the threat of mass poisoning.

Elias is author of "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It." His email address is

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