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Thursday, April 6, 2006 - Page updated at 11:15 AM

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15 days in a metal box, to be locked up

Seattle Times staff reporters

The cargo container that delivered 22 stowaways from Shanghai to Seattle this week would normally be carrying 20 tons of merchandise — toys, furniture, bikes or computers.

But crews removing it from the MV Rotterdam Wednesday noticed it was far lighter than it should have been and flagged it for inspection.

Before that inspection could be made, however, a private security officer working the graveyard shift at Harbor Island's Terminal 18 spotted two men and a woman wandering in a fenced-in area. Within half an hour, all the stowaways had been rounded up. One of the security guards said she didn't find any evidence that others had escaped.

Inside the dark, musty, 40-foot metal box, the 18 men and four women, all in their 20s and 30s, had spent 15 days crossing the Pacific Ocean to the U.S., with no fresh air or light.

They had blankets and clothing, tools — presumably to help them break out of the container — and a supply of water.

And while they had portable fans to disperse the air, security guards who discovered them would later describe the stench inside the container as overwhelming. Agents found mounds of discarded food packages and containers filled with human waste.

The Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division took the group, all believed to be Chinese nationals, into custody early Wednesday.

The discovery was the first major case of container smuggling in Seattle since 37 Chinese nationals — three of them dead — were discovered inside containers on two separate shipping vessels in 2000, including the Cape May.

It comes as Seattle prepares for a visit this month from Chinese President Hu Jintao and as U.S. and Chinese officials intensify negotiations over the return of up to 39,000 Chinese nationals living illegally in the U.S.

The discovery also came on the same day lawmakers were debating a measure in the U.S. Senate that would toughen security standards at U.S. ports.

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"It's remarkable that after 15 days in a 40-foot metal box, they all appeared to be in fine health, moving around," said Mike Milne, spokesman for Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection divisions.

"There were no obvious signs of illness or disease. It's a sharp contrast to the Cape May case."

The stowaways were interviewed by immigration authorities at Homeland Security offices in Tukwila before being taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where they will be held. As stowaways, they can be deported without a hearing unless they are able to build immigration cases for themselves.

Trying to learn details

Investigators Wednesday were still trying to learn more about the stowaways and find the smugglers — both in the U.S. and China — who helped get them here. In some cases, officials say, smugglers, known as snakeheads, can take in between $30,000 and $60,000 per person.

Had they not been caught, the stowaways likely would have been taken to another city with help from the smugglers, possibly Los Angeles or New York, to be reunited with family or friends, Milne said.

"Clearly it's an organized human smuggling attempt," said Leigh Winchell, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent in charge. "It is a huge business and these people are treated like commodities."

The MV Rotterdam, a container ship registered in Liberia and operated by China Shipping, left Hong Kong on March 19.

It stopped in Yantian, China, before arriving in Shanghai, where the container carrying the 22 Chinese nationals was loaded. The Rotterdam made a stop in Pusan, South Korea, before departing March 26 for Seattle.

It arrived at Terminal 18 at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, carrying 1,000 cargo containers — including the one with human cargo.

Bob Watters, a spokesman for SSA Marine, which operates Terminal 18, said that particular container was set aside for customs inspection because of its unusual weight.

"We realized it was light when we picked up the container," he said. "Customs checked the manifest [list of the ship's contents] and found no detailed information in it."

But even before the container could be inspected, stowaways started to emerge.

Leanne Middleton, a guard with Reliant Security, spotted the first three as they walked around, seemingly lost, about a half-mile from Gate 4, where trucks loaded with cargo rumble off to distant markets.

She gunned her security van to head them off. Two stopped. One ran. Another guard detained them while Middleton spotted another six. She said none appeared to understand English and she knew she had stowaways when they could provide no identification.

The stowaways, dressed in dark clothes and sneakers, remained silent and did not resist, said Middleton.

No one appeared to be leading the others, she said.

The stowaways' cargo container was next to a barbed-wire fence on the western perimeter of the shipyard. Instead of trying to scale the fence, about 10 feet high, the stowaways were "looking for a free and easy exit," Middleton said.

Fewer incidents

Virginia Kice, a Los Angeles-based spokeswoman for ICE, said U.S. officials have seen a sharp decline in container smuggling at West Coast ports in the past several years.

In the late 1990s, she said, the discovery of stowaways was practically a weekly event in Los Angeles.

Since then, there have been what Kice called significant enhancements in securing cargo containers here and overseas. "We are also seeing significantly improved cooperation by Chinese authorities.

"We've had two or three [incidents] in L.A. in the last two or three years."

But while the port smugglings tend to grab the headlines, more illegal immigrants are smuggled by land than by sea.

Until about two years ago, large numbers of Korean nationals were being smuggled across the U.S. border from British Columbia. Border agents at the Blaine crossing succeeded in pushing the activities farther east, said Joe Giuliano, U.S. Border Patrol deputy chief of the Blaine sector.

"Spokane got hit with it last year and they have been successful in pushing it even further east," he said.

Smuggling "is far too lucrative for them to walk away from. They're trying to get ahead of us and we're trying to get ahead of them."

"What keeps me awake"

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the discovery of the Rotterdam stowaways highlights the vulnerability of America's cargo-container system.

"This is exactly what keeps me awake at night," said Murray. She said she was preparing to testify Wednesday on a port security bill she co-sponsors when she learned about the discovery.

In this case, she said, there were 22 people, "but it could easily have been a dirty bomb. And no one would have seen it wandering around the terminal."

Millions of cargo containers arrive daily in the U.S. and every one is screened even before they are loaded onto U.S.-bound ships, Milne said.

Five percent to 6 percent are flagged as "high risk" and are either X-rayed or physically opened once they are unloaded onto American soil, he said.

Additionally, the Shanghai port from which the human cargo was shipped had been participating for a year in a program U.S. Customs and Border Protection began developing after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a way to help secure U.S. borders.

The Container Security Initiative partners with 44 foreign ports, which are asked to notify the U.S. with details of the containers' contents 24 hours before the containers are loaded.

Customs and Border Patrol agents then analyze the risk based on what they know about the shipper and the history of the container. If a container is deemed suspicious, customs authorities can ask the foreign port to put it through radiation or other detectors or to open it and inspect its contents.

Homeland Security says ports participating in the program oversee shipment of 80 percent of the containers coming to the U.S.

But Murray said the container initiative and similar security programs put into place since Sept. 11 are not comprehensive enough, nor are they yet effective.

As trade with China increases, some predict there could be more opportunities for stowaways.

"As one of the U.S.'s top trading partners, everything has to get from here to there and there to here, and containers is the way it's done," Giuliano said. And that business dynamic creates opportunities for smugglers and those who would use their services.

In the past decade, imports from China have skyrocketed, bringing ever more containers through Puget Sound ports. Imports grew from about $3 billion in 1998 to nearly $13 billion in 2005, according to data provided by the World Trade Center Tacoma.

SSA, the largest U.S.-based port operator, has seen a 22 percent growth in U.S. business over the past year, largely due to increased trade with China.

The 22 stowaways have a few options regarding their future in this country. With stowaways, the government can invoke immediate removal.

The immigrants can also seek asylum, in which they would need to establish a credible fear of returning to their home country.

"If they have relatives in the U.S., then they [the relatives] can petition for them to remain here in the U.S.," Milne said. "They may also be held as material witnesses in a criminal human-smuggling operation."

Lornet Turnbull: (206) 464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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