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NO MORE SMUGGLING -- AFTER LEARNING IT INSIDE OUT

Every time David A. Wright thinks he has seen it all, along comes another smuggler with a new wrinkle.

"There is a case in New York City that is one of the strangest I've heard yet," said Wright, special agent in charge of the U.S. Customs Service Enforcement Office in Buffalo. "A man actually sliced open his thighs, put packets of drugs under the skin and sewed himself back up.

"We've arrested people in Buffalo who have filled condoms with cocaine and swallowed them. They brought the drugs over the border in their stomachs. It is incredible to me what power drugs has over people and their lives, that they would risk doing something like that."

Trying to catch drug smugglers has been a major part of Wright's life since he left the Detroit Police Department and joined the Customs Service in 1966. He was transferred to Buffalo in 1971, and since 1984, he has headed all Customs Service criminal investigations in this region.

Chasing the smugglers will become someone else's worry at the end of this month, when Wright, 57, a popular and sometimes outspoken man among local police officials, takes his retirement.

"I'm at mandatory retirement age for federal agents, so I have no choice," Wright said. "But to be honest, I feel like I've had enough. I'm ready to get out. I feel mentally a step slower than I was in my younger years."

Wright said he has enjoyed the job and is proud of some major cases broken by his office in Buffalo, ranging from the seizure of two Vietnam War combat jets in 1989 to the 1993 seizure of 275 pounds of cocaine, worth an estimated $35 million on the streets.

Last year, Wright's agents seized $2.7 million in alleged drug proceeds at the border.

But Wright said he is not kidding himself into delusions that law enforcement is making any more than a small dent in the region's drug traffic.

He estimates that Customs officials catch, at most, 10 percent of the illegal drugs that cross the border at Buffalo and Niagara Falls each year. Some law enforcement officials estimate that $1 billion in drugs and drug money cross the border in Western New York each year.

"The cocaine comes up from South America, through Buffalo, into Canada. The heroin comes from the Far East, through Canada, down through Buffalo into the U.S.," Wright said.

Despite the occasional major arrest, the vast majority of smugglers are getting through.

"Is it frustrating, knowing that so much is getting across the border? Of course, it is," Wright said. "But we're not giving up."

The smuggling is the price the country pays for maintaining easy travel restrictions on the U.S.-Cana dian border, Wright said, noting that there are very few international crossings in the world that handle as much traffic as the bridges in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

"This office covers 720 miles of border between New York State and Canada," he said. "There are 22 ports of entry, including the bridges at Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Last year, we had 28 million vehicles cross the border in our district.

"So many people pass over the border for legitimate business or pleasure reasons, and they get upset when there's even a five-minute backup. I know, I feel the same way when I cross the border."

Despite his frustrations, Wright is strongly against legalizing drugs.

"I am convinced that if you legalize it, drug use will explode. You'll have 'stoned' people everywhere," Wright said. "I think anti-drug education in the schools is the key, that's the most important thing. We in law enforcement are the last line of defense."

When he left home at age 18, fresh out of high school in Port Huron, Mich., Wright did not know he'd wind up in law enforcement. His parents had divorced, and Wright moved to Detroit with $20 in his pocket.

"I was homeless, unemployed and there was a recession on, but I had the confidence of youth," he recalled. "I applied for 20 jobs in two days, and wound up in an accounting office at the Grand Trunk Railroad."

He joined the Detroit Police Department in 1961 and worked for five years in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods, known as "The Valley."

"I worked in a four-man car we called the cruiser car. We kept a machine gun in the vehicle at all times," Wright said.

"In that police job, I delivered two babies, was in five shoot-outs and investigated a number of homicides, and I was almost a rookie. You got 20 years' experience in five years."

That experience was invaluable, Wright said, but he is glad that he moved to the Customs Service.

Wright lives on Grand Island with Sharon Wright, his wife of 32 years. They have two sons and a daughter.

He said he has no intention of looking for a new job now that he's leaving the Customs Service.

"It's too bad I can't go into the smuggling business," he said. "It's the thing I know best."

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