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House panel looks into charges of 'racial profiling' by U.S. Customs

By Jeanne Meserve/CNN

May 21, 1999
Web posted at: 12:46 p.m. EDT (1646 GMT)

Buritica
Amanda Buritica testified that she was strip-searched and held against her will by U.S. Customs agents  

WASHINGTON (May 21) -- In testimony before a House Committee Thursday, witnesses accused the U.S. Customs Service of so-called "racial profiling," a practice of unfairly targeting minorities in the fight against drug trafficking.

In testimony before the panel, witnesses told of being detained, forced to drink laxatives and then strip-searched.

Columbian-born Amanda Buritica told the panel that she was held against her will, stripped and cavity searched. She said that when she refused to take laxatives, U.S. Customs agents in San Francisco threatened her with jail and force-feeding.

Denson
Janneral Denson was given a body cavity search and forced to drink laxatives  

"I was so scared and so embarrassed," said an emotional Buritica. "It was the most humiliating, degrading thing that I ever had to go through." (152K wav file)

Agents suspected Buritica of smuggling drugs but did not find any.

Personal searches are a tool in the Customs Service's fight against illegal drugs. But critics say it is a tactic used disproportionately against minorities.

Janneral Denson, a black woman, was six and a half months pregnant when she was detained by agents in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and handcuffed to a bed. There she too was required to drink laxatives.

Lewis
Rep. John Lewis  

"I was taken to the bathroom by two agents who had me lean against the wall and spread my legs so they could search me. After that they let me go to the bathroom while they watched," Denson said. (128K wav file)

Again, no drugs were found on Denson, but she did suffer severe diarrhea, pain and bleeding. And eight days later her baby was born prematurely.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) said, "There are figures showing that 43 percent of the people that are detained -- that are searched -- happen to be black and Hispanic."

With about a dozen lawsuits pending, the Customs Service has appointed an independent commission to investigate.

Kelly
U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Raymond Kelly  

U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Raymond Kelly said: "In no instance will we allow racial bias to be tolerated as a substitute for good law enforcement."

But are body searches good law enforcement?

Although Kelly says they have an important deterrent effect, only about one percent of airline passengers are subjected to personal searches. And only four percent of those who are searched prove to be carrying drugs.


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U.S. Customs Service



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Friday, May 21, 1999

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