The Chilling Effect
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Outside magazine, August 1997
The Chilling Effect
A small can of chlorofluorocarbons, the UN says, can destroy 70,000 pounds of the ozone layer. In the last three years, smugglers have brought 60 million pounds of bootleg CFCs into the United States. “It’s just good business,” says one who claims to have pocketed $30,000 in a few quick border runs. “No big deal.”
The cabbie is late and it’s getting dark, the sky turning a dusky, watery pink over the Mexican landscape. It’s not a bad place to wait, though: just over a border crossing more vibrant and lively than most, with the gurgling Rio Grande delineating things, its banks weedy and littered with discarded bottles. The bridge at the crossing is
Matamoros’s main thoroughfare is banked with restaurants, souvenir shops, and discos. Noisy taxis work the street, moving tourists from one diversion to another. Earlier in the day I spoke with one of the taxi drivers, who was hunched over a cigarette on his break. It was meant to seem a casual conversation, but what I hoped was that one of these cabbies might know something
As luck — or maybe simple odds — would have it, among the first Matamorosan I spoke with not only knew about such smuggling, but had a family member involved: his 37-year-old cousin. After much discussion and promises of anonymity, the cabbie agreed to take me to see him. Our assignation was set for seven o’clock.
When the cab appears I climb in beside the driver. He’s 40 years old, with thinning black hair, untended sideburns, and an abjectly casual air, all the more so considering the illegality he is about to shuttle me to. With a lurch the taxi heads away from the main drag and down into quieter residential streets dotted with tiny stucco homes kept glowing with whitewash or pastel
The cousin leads us into the home, where in the living room a boy of six or seven has fallen asleep on the rug in front of a television beaming out an episode of ER. Indicating the sleeping child, the cousin presses a finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he says. “My son played hard today.”
As they pass through the kitchen, the two men grab beers from the refrigerator and head for the garage. Inside is the typical suburban detritus: broken bicycles, scattered tools, a doorless deep freeze, a gutted Oldsmobile. But one wall is covered with cardboard boxes stacked three deep and nearly as high as the ceiling — some 40 cases in all. The cousin pulls a carton
“Like gold,” he announces, displaying the 12-ounce can. “Or diamonds. Costs me a buck for these small ones here, ten or 12 for the fat ones in those boxes.” He points to a stack. “But across the border, maybe five, six thousand dollars for all this. A couple loads a month and we’ll take a pretty good vacation.”
Leaning on the car, the cab driver lights a cigarette. “A vacation in jail,” he says to his cousin.
“No way,” comes the reply. “Maybe you, not me. You’ll kill somebody with that taxi. Turning to me he adds, “Smuggling is not really a problem. We go at night. We know where and when. We use a boat and trucks. That’s all I’ll tell you.”
Once in the United States, he transports the goods to a friend in Houston who pays cash — $30,000 so far. He claims to have made six runs over the past year but plans to schedule them more frequently. “Summer’s coming,” he says. “The hotter, the better. People pay a lot for a nice, cool breeze on a hot summer day.”
Before we leave the garage, he picks up another can of R-12, tosses it up, and catches it as if it were a tennis ball. “It can’t hurt nothing,” he says. “It’s just good business. No big deal.” With the blade of his pocketknife he pushes on the sealed opening of the pressurized can. The release of even the tiniest amount of CFC is illegal under the myriad conditions of the
The science of coldness, of chlorofluorocarbons, can be a little daunting. Invented in 1928, R-12 was the coolant used for decades in almost all refrigerators and air conditioners, both for homes and automobiles. But in the mid-1970s, scientists found that the chemical, when loosed into the atmosphere, rises 15 miles above the earth’s surface, where it is broken down by the
These sobering discoveries led to a push by environmental groups to phase out R-12. Perhaps the most important provision of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which was ultimately signed by more than 140 countries, was the elimination of almost all CFCs. The protocol made it illegal, as of January 1, 1996, to manufacture R-12 in the United States as well as many other countries, and
The inconveniences that the agreement created were really pretty slight. Many high-technology companies once used CFCs in degreasers and solvents, but the chemicals were simply replaced with less destructive agents. Also easily altered were most of the refrigerators and home air-conditioning systems that used CFCs; in fact, such refitting was essentially complete in the United
It’s possible to refit older cars, of course, but such conversion can set an owner back $1,000. Still, the hopeful talk around the negotiating table in Montreal was that people would happily retrofit, because it would eventually become cheaper than paying for expensive recharges. And it likely would have, but for one thing. As Runyon used to say, Enter the smuggler.
Irma Henneberg, a short, frumpy, 51-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident of Panamanian birth, managed for the past several years a number of shipping companies based in south Florida, including one called Caicos Caribbean Lines. From December 1993 to March 1995 the company smuggled 4,000 tons of Russian-made R-12 into the Port of Miami. The street value of the haul was
After a highly publicized trial during which she earned begrudging admiration from prosecutors for the sheer height of her rudeness, Henneberg was sentenced to four years and nine months in federal prison, a term she began serving in November 1995. The charges involved the filing of 34 false manifests with the U.S. Customs Service in connection with the R-12. The manifests claimed
that the gas would be shipped from Miami to the Netherlands Antilles island of Curaçao, which has a population of only 145,000. At the rate Henneberg said she was shipping, each resident would own about 55 pounds of R-12, enough to cryogenize the entire citizenry.
Henneberg’s company was actually doing what virtually all R-12 smugglers do — sell the coolant to U.S. auto-parts stores and various middlemen, who resell it to service stations and air-conditioning repair shops. Such businesses can buy a bootleg 30-pound canister of R-12 for $400. They then charge a customer as much as $80 per pound and pocket the $2,000 difference.
This exploitable margin exists because of a glitch in the environmentalists’ plan. A loophole in the Protocol gave developing countries, such as Mexico, until the year 2010 to phase out of the CFC business. And although they are prohibited from manufacturing the chemical here, U.S. companies such as Allied Signal and DuPont continue to pump out R-12 in plants in countries such
Even with these efforts — and despite the intentions of the Montreal Protocol — many scientists and environmental organizations have reported dangerously increasing ozone depletion over the last two years. “It’s at crisis level,” says John Passacantando, the 36-year-old director of the Washington, D.C.-based Ozone Action Group. Passacantando’s mien — that of a
The thin blue line of Brownsville — in Freon terms, anyway — is a slight, Holly Hunterish, 33-year-old U.S. Customs agent named Sharon Reils, who on a recent morning arrives at work tricked-out in familiar Tex-garb: black, round-toed boots, freshly pressed Wranglers, and a leather-collared cotton shirt. A colleague greets her with a mock bow: “The Ozone Queen has
Reils was thus tabbed after landing the city’s first-ever CFC case last year: One Hipolito Loyde-Guerrero, 42, owner of a down-at-the-heels Houston air-conditioning repair shop, was caught with 60 pounds of R-12 crammed in his car. Loyde-Guerrero made for an underwhelming first case, standing just five and a half feet tall, weighing 165 pounds, and with a history noticeably
Despite the presence of some very unsavory types within the R-12 netherworld — the Russian mob, for instance, is a significant player in the worldwide R-12 trade — Reils’s criminals tend to be small-timers and their apprehension not nearly as flashy as those in, say, Florida, where R-12 arrests by the undercover agents of Operation Cool Breeze can assume a Miami
Criminals aren’t the only ones expressing disbelief at the large and concerted CFC intervention effort — many politicians are, too, despite actions by Vice-President Al Gore and Attorney General Janet Reno to keep the program politically viable. The policing effort achieved its highest profile last January, when shortly after 5,000 tons of illegal R-12 were intercepted in
Even so, such political maneuvering unsettled Ozone Action’s Passacantando enough that he fired off an anxiously aggrieved letter to Nevada’s legislators. “If A.B. 163 were to become Nevada law, it would undermine years of international negotiations,” he wrote. “Furthermore, production of CFCs in Nevada would make it a rogue state exporting a highly destructive product for
short-term gain, not unlike Columbia’s [sic] role in exporting cocaine.” The letter did not find a generally receptive audience. “Anything that will undermine international negotiations in the area is OK with me,” replied one legislator. “I believe the ozone scare is just a scare, with no scientific data.”
As it happens, the suspected speciousness of ozone science is a common topic in Washington, perpetually debated by a familiar list of critics and quasi experts. In 1995, Representative Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican and the majority whip, joined Representative John Doolittle, a California Republican, in a failed attempt to withdraw the United States from the Montreal Protocol,
Perhaps the most often cited contrarian source is Sallie Baliunas’s 1994 article, presented at the West Coast Roundtable for Science and Public Policy, “Ozone and Global Warming: Are the Problems Real?” Baliunas, a staff astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has written that “there is currently no evidence to suggest that man-made chemicals, like
Sharon reils parks her bright green Jeep Cherokee near the Gateway Bridge, one of three crossings from Brownsville into Mexico. We stand for a moment under the hot sun and watch as blue-suited customs agents do their efficient work, stopping and searching cars coming in from Mexico, casually evicting their occupants while other agents clamber inside for a more thorough search.
Reils heads over to the nearby clearing area to which all truck traffic is diverted. It’s a football-field-size concrete slab lined with loading docks; forklifts hum about, lugging pallets spilling over with every item imaginable, from gunnysacks of seashells to boxes of Nike running shorts. After taking in the scene for a moment, Reils heads over to chat with Border Patrol
“Anything interesting happening?” Reils asks.
“Nothing much,” says Trevi˜o. “It’s pretty quiet. We had a circus that was on its way to Mexico with 14 white tigers. They had papers for the tigers, but the FDA was concerned about the 3,000 pounds of meat they had to feed them.”
While the search for illegal drugs and contraband is workaday routine here, the relatively new R-12 trade has introduced some unique obstacles. Inspectors check documents and often search loads, but as Trevi˜o points out, “It’s impossible to check every truck for Freon.” Trained dogs, used to sniff out drugs, are useless when it comes to cans of CFCs. And even if suspect
Thus Reils, with her vigilant interdiction effort, has to rely on sting operations and the enlisted help of several government agencies, including the IRS (illegal R-12 shipments reportedly cost the federal government more than $100 million a year in lost excise taxes and customs duties) and the EPA. And many of the larger-scale seizures have been accomplished not through these
I wanted to get a little better sense of the sweep of Freon smuggling, so a few days after I left Matamoros, I spent some time with accounts of all the U.S. arrests from the past few years. Sitting in my office, with the windows wide open and the cool and damp northern California breeze drifting in, I monitored the ever-expanding black-market world of R-12. Charges have been
The stretch of the Texas border Reils patrols has inherited a larger share of the trade of late, mostly because of the success of a crackdown in Florida, where the bulk of illegal R-12 has been seized so far. Assistant U.S. attorney Tom Watts-FitzGerald, who coordinates Operation Cool Breeze, has convicted 19 smugglers, the biggest of whom have been sentenced to up to 57
Such showy arrests were considered major successes, but officials admit that it’s impossible to measure the impact of the government’s efforts to stop the smuggling. More than ten cargo ships arrive at the Port of Miami every day, bringing in or picking up 24,000 cargo containers. Along the Texas border, another 12,500 containers are moved each day by truck and train.
And even if the smuggler is unlucky, the literally ethereal nature of R-12 may come back to help him in court. When what you are smuggling can’t be seen, when the harm it is doing is both technical and abstract, and when the service it provides is so blandly and selfishly appealing, it isn’t always easy to make the appropriate people feel outraged. As one Texas judge asked in
The cabbie has returned me to the border, and his cousin is presumably back at his labors, readying his loads of R-12 for the midnight sneak into Texas. Earlier Reils drove me north of the border to a nondescript eight-story structure — a home for retirees, the tallest building in Brownsville. “That’s where the Border Patrol has their lookout,” she said, motioning down to
I left her there, on alert, and headed for home, where the weather had turned unseasonably warm. I rolled up the windows and snapped on my car’s air-conditioning, enjoying the immediately frigid air that blasted out. Though my Honda is pretty new and doesn’t use R-12, I still wanted to investigate the final stop for the gas, and I pulled off the freeway and drove along a road
“I need to get my AC recharged,” I said. “How much will that be?”
“Probably about $175 or so,” he said. “Depends if it’s leaking, though.”
“‘Cause they’re trying to outlaw R-12 because it’s bad for the environment.” He’d gotten to his feet now, a tall, balding man in blue coveralls.
“Can I get it cheaper somewhere? I heard I can buy Mexican R-12, or some bootleg stuff.”
Though many garage owners wouldn’t let a customer, never mind a stranger, poke around their shops, my recent introduction to the world of smuggled Freon made me suspicious, and I wondered if the illegal gas is so prevalent that I’d stumbled into some so easily. Reils had mentioned that the only way to know if you are buying legal R-12 is to check the cans the mechanics use;
“Hey!” the mechanic shouted. “I can’t have you over there.”
I retreated to the entrance, looked the place over one more time, and started for my car. “Thanks,” I yelled. “I might be back.”
“You will if it gets hot enough,” he said, and slipped back under his car.
David Sheff is the author of Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World. Editorial assistant Michael Kessler provided additional reporting for this story..
Illustration by Kevin Irby