Sunday, May 17, 2015

Your Villain Is Sneaking Over Our Borders? Info for Writers with Vincent Annunziato

Does your plot include crossing a border into the United States? You'll have to get your character past the border guards.

To help inform our writing about US borders, I've invited Kindle Scout Winner Vincent Annunziato to join us today.

Fiona - 
Vincent, in the news we often hear about border issues, and it seems like a wonderful dynamic to add to a plotline since it is a struggle for life or death, a way of living, and more. Can we start by your background?

Vincent - 

First of all, I have to state that I am acting on my own personal accord and I am not officially representing the government or CBP. The opinions expressed here are solely my own.

My background: I have worked for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) since 1996. I started out as an Inspector at Los Angeles Airport. I worked in various positions for 8 years which included passenger processing as well as cargo processing. Eventually, I was offered and accepted a position in Washington, DC. I was hired at what is termed a "Subject Matter Expert." In this position I helped build the CBP Information Technology (IT) systems. I have been there for 11 years and am now a Director.

As an IT Director, I work on one of the largest and most successful civilian government projects the federal government has budgeted. I oversee programs that Customs brokers use to bring cargo into the United States.

On this project, I have received 5 Commissioner awards in my tenure. One of them, called the Ambassador Award is the highest facilitation award given to non-uniformed staff. I was one of 2 selectees out of all of customs personnel to receive it.

I currently oversee three major programs for CBP, Cargo Release, Single Window and Mobility Apps. And yes, in my spare time I write novels.

Fiona - 
Please tell us what the duties of the border security force are?

Vincent -
Border Security breaks down into a couple of different components.

  • There is the human aspect which people are most familiar with. There is a difference between immigration and passing through Customs. Immigration focuses on rules governing people. Customs focuses on rules governing goods. 
    • When a person enters from foreign into the US they agree to abide by the laws as set forth in this country. 
    • The person must have proper identification such as passports and visas in order to come here legally. 
    • They also must adhere to the laws governing what is lawful to bring into the country. I'm sure many have seen little beagles sniffing for fruits and vegetables. But anything purchased overseas is subject to our authority. 
  • There is also the non-human aspect. 
    • To import goods into the country importers must make entry. As an example if a person were to import clothing or watches they would need to file the proper data or documentation. 
    • Imported goods have what is called duties or taxes and those charges are collected by Customs. People coming from overseas are responsible to declare those items or suffer severe penalties.
That is a summary of what CBP does with people at the border. If we expand to cargo related items. I would like to give you a little historical information.

CBP is a self-sufficient agency. Meaning we pay for ourselves.

The agency itself has been around for several hundred years. It is one of the oldest US agencies. Signed into being in 1789, the Customs service has quite a history.

CBP has two main responsibilities. Protecting our borders and collecting revenue. We are the buffer between international terrorism and the safety of our homeland. Since we are also a revenue-collecting agency, we keep our economy moving strong. Cargo comprises most of our revenue. Individual duties are a very small portion of what the agency takes in. Commercial revenue arrives on large ships coming into ports such as Long Beach, CA and New York. It can come in on planes, trucks, trains, etc…. All of these modes of transportation bring goods into the country. And all of those goods that come into our economy are subject to taxes and duties.

The importing companies pay the US government to legally bring goods into the country

Fiona - 
How are the border guards chosen? What kinds of backgrounds and expertise are sought after?

Vincent - 

Border guards, or better stated, Customs Officials are broken up into a number of different divisions.

We have Customs and Border Protection Officers, Border Patrol Agents, Agriculture Officers, Immigration Officers, Air and Marine divisions.

Customs Officers apply to the government and are selected based on education and experience. It is the ground floor of law enforcement and you have to have a clean background, meaning no felonies associated to your name.

Officers go through a 12 to 13 week training course if selected and are trained in a number of different areas.
Everyone who attends the school must be able to prove they can: 

  • Fire a weapon 
  • Have good physical ability 

They must be able to pass a battery of academic tests too. These tests include understanding international laws and regulations and harmonized tariff schedule (classification of goods).

Fiona - 
What kinds of personalities would do well in this job and conversely which personalities would create tensions in a plotline?

Vincent - 

  • There many different types that serve in this agency. It is quite large. But when you look at the types that the public comes in contact with I really see two categories. There are the military types that come straight from military backgrounds.
    • They are usually very letter of the law and disciplined. 
    • Those without a strong law enforcement background or military background are usually more analytical. They will dig very deeply into the laws and smuggling habits and leave no stone unturned. 
    • We see these types on specialized teams performing large volumes of reconnaissance to study up on items like black market goods, drug marketing, etc. 
    • As far as plotlines, I would stay away from the typical postal worker type that is slovenly and does very little.
  • Those without military background, such as myself fall into a   different category. 
    • These types tend to be more analytical. 
    • There are more astute in the irregularities they see from trends. 
  • There is one other distinct difference especially with the younger ones. They tend to be very generation Y. Meaning they work toward small goals, very internet savvy, and believe they can do anything even if they don’t have the experience.

Fiona -
What is the craziest thing that you've ever heard of being smuggled either into or out of our country?

Vincent - 
Birds Eggs. Apparently, a person came into the airport and several officers noticed she had very large hair that went straight up. Her hair caught a lot of attention, but nobody immediately saw anything wrong.

When the woman was called into secondary for questioning, apparently the officer heard what sounded like chirping. Sure enough the woman was smuggling exotic birds into the country and they hatched in her hair. LOL

Fiona - 
That's hysterical. While many focus on the southern border when they think of border control, my concern is our vast shoreline. Does the border control and the coast guard work in tandem? What is does that relationship look like?

Vincent - 
Yes, CBP works very closely with the Coast Guard. The agency has its own Air and Marine Division.

Every area of the country is very dangerous and has its own component to deal with.

People don't think of Canada as an area that could be potentially dangerous, but I can tell you that many people forget about the car bomber that was trying to come in from up there to blow up LAX where I used to work.

The Coast Guard can stop ships if it needs to out on the ocean and although I don't have much personal experience that area we are both a part of the same department (DHS) and the two agencies have joint activities when necessary.

Fiona - 
You mentioned earlier the issues with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) can you tell us, without giving away State secrets, the kinds of equipment that would be used to monitor for this and if there is a special task force employed?

Vincent - 
Officers are equipped with devices that can detect nuclear weapons. There are also machines that are used to detect these devices. The agency of course also relies on intelligence that it garners from outside sources such as other agencies. Every unit that works the front line receives training to detect these types of items and how to respond.

Fiona - 
When you read books or watch movies that include border safety, what do you see written incorrectly (the technical side of things)? What stereotypes do you wish the writers would stop using (the personality side of things)?

Vincent - 

Tough question. Most of the time when I see officials from CBP portrayed, they are either in the background not doing anything or being portrayed as somewhat lackadaisical. That drives me crazy.

The officer in their role has to make decisions in a matter of seconds. They are looking for something that is at the 6th sense level. Is it a twitch, or unexplained nervousness reaction?

These officers don't need probable cause to approach someone they only need mere suspicion. So an officer, a good one is "INTUITIVE." They see things before the average person, and they can decipher another person's actions into tangible, confrontable issues.

How does an officer identify a "swallower" or one who swallows drugs to smuggle into the US? Is it a person who dresses slightly off? Who looks a little slower? A little more active? When you get to this point in your character analysis, you are really uncovering a potentially complex creature that is very cognizant of their surroundings.

One other thing that may be helpful to understand, is that these people are not shy. They are always in front of the public, looking for smuggling activity. Because of this, they are usually dealing with uncomfortable situations and are not intimidated easily.

Fiona - 
You mentioned a swallower. First question - could a scent-trained K9 pick up on the scent inside of a person if they had thoroughly cleaned after the swallow? And part 2 if you have a suspicion you have a swallower how do you prove/disprove the suspicion - what 4th amendment rights are preserved by the person?

Vincent - 
K-9's cannot pick up scents on someone who has swallowed balloons filled with narcotic.

It takes a specially trained officer to recognize this kind of smuggling. I will say that it is one of the most dangerous methods for smugglers to agree too. If the balloon bursts, the people smuggling in this manner will die a horrible death.

With international law, a person is taken in (again on mere suspicion). If a person is suspected of smuggling in that manner, they are brought to a hospital for x-rays and/or a monitored bowel movement MBM. Literally, the potential smuggler will be watched and the officer will wait until they have passed the items before going any further.

Fiona - 
Describe "horrible death."

Vincent - 

The narcotic acts like acid inside the body and literally eats away at the organs. This method was also used with dogs and puppies. Dogs have the drugs surgically implanted and when they reach the US, they are killed. Many dogs have been found in the streets with their stomachs cut open. The drug trade is a cruel and vicious employment.

Fiona - 
They made puppies eat narcotics balloons? There's a special ring in hell for such a villain.

Vincent - 

Yes. These people are not businessmen. They are murderers. And the MULES (smugglers) who humanly transport drugs are people in dire straits.

Smugglers are usually desperate for money, so they see the money which can make them more in one successful trip than what they make in a year. Of course once they do smuggle, they can't get out. If they try, it isn’t just them who have their life threatened, but all their family and friends. Nobody wins in this business.

Fiona - 
Do border officials ever do undercover ops? Or are they always in uniform?

Vincent - 
There are special ops where people go out in plain clothes. For the most part CBP is uniformed.

Fiona - 
Do you have your own jail system?

Vincent - 

Fiona - What happens to the people who were being brought over in human trafficking? Are they given medical treatment? Are they sent right home? Does this response change if they are minors?

Vincent - 
This is a sad situation. I don't really have experience with this, but yes, I do know that people are treated well, and then returned to the country they came from. They receive medical treatment and then they are deported.

Fiona - 
A question about integrity - it seems to me that if I were a bad guy (and karmic retribution didn't terrify me) that I would try to plant some people in the roll of border guard so I could get a free pass when it came to my nefarious shipments. How does your agency thwart such plans?

Vincent - 
LOL - yeah, I don't think too many criminals are into Karma. Greed usually is the prime motivator. As every agency we self police. There is a separate Internal Affairs unit that does prosecute and oversees cases.

We have a website that tracks people who succumb to criminal activity. The numbers never make sense to me. I don’t know why anyone would aid the bad guys. It’s amazing to me that people give up a good paying job for a quick hit. The cash that people make doesn’t add up either. It’s not like they make enough to go buy an island. So they give up a good paying job for some cash. Just an odd thing in my book. But something for writers to think about.

Fiona - 
How do you interact with the various governments do they give you heads ups? Do you work cases together?

Vincent -
Fiona this is very complicated question. The regular officer does not interact in this manner. The agents who are not the same as officers probably have more experience in this area. Officers usually assist in cases where our expertise is needed. We understand the flow of goods, but most of the international liaisoning (I know that's not a word) is done a different level. Agencies have to have agreements in order to share information.

Fiona - 
(English is a living language and can grow with new words. I like liasoning.)

I was thinking that the particular government and their GDP as well as the politics would have a great deal to do with things. What should I have asked you if I knew enough on the topic to ask?

Vincent - 
I guess you might ask how we keep our business competitive in a global market.

US business is one of the agency's priorities. International agreements are signed to keep domestic companies competitive. There is something called anti-dumping.

When a company from foreign produces a lot of goods at cheap prices they can flood the markets here in the US so that our companies go out of business. CBP protects our country by setting up quotas.

Fiona - 
What types of flooding? Is this Chinese steel?

Vincent -
Could be batteries, transistors, TVs. Could be anything.

Fiona - 
Besides writing on your work commute, how has your job influenced your writing?

Vincent - 

Several things actually. One I have become a very good observer of personal interactions. Many of my experiences in my work life have influenced me.

Some people identify well with a badge. They see the person as someone who is protecting them vs. others who feel the badge signifies something that is stopping them from what they want to do.

Also, I use as a constant motif one of the issues I have dealt with on an on-going basis. The job day in and day out is the same and a lot of overtime is worked so the officers have to face the same public everyday it weighs on you after a while. Overcoming that obstacle mixed in with a feeling of there has to be something better always finds its way into my characters.

Fiona - 
Can you give me a synopsis of you Kindle Scout Winning novel?

Vincent - 
33 Degrees is a very different dystopian/post-apocalyptic.

33 Blurb:

It is said that in the depths of the Underground lies a weapon so powerful it will save the Northern herd from the cruelty slavery has put them under. It is said that anyone who holds the Pulse, holds the power to freedom. It is said… well after so many years, no one really believes it anymore.

18 year old, Javin has grown accustomed to death. Burdened by a new ice age, little food and very little fuel for heat, only the strong survive under the threat of nature and the cruelty of the South. Survival is a train ride away and missing it can be deadly. Everyone battles to board so that they can work in the mines where Northerners are paid with two small meals and enough coal to heat their homes for the night.

Everyday's a struggle for the herd. Survivors would rather die than live and many say that even the sun has turned its back on them. They believe it is hidden behind the Southern wall in a city where no Northerner will journey. Javin has his own personal issues as he waits for the perfect time to kill and be killed. Only there’s one catch. A new found love, sparks unexpected hope.

In this dystopian, post-apocalyptic view of the future, Javin must rise from the depths of despair and help his people find their way back to their rightful place in the world.

A daunting task for anyone living in a world where it is too warm to die, and too cold to live.

Fiona -
And finally, per tradition will you tell us a scar story?

Vincent -
Between my thumb and pointing finger I have a scar shaped like a bird. As a young boy I picked up a piece of wood with a nail in it and lifted it not realizing it was connected at the other end. I pulled hard and the wood slipped out of my hand. When the wood snapped down the nail pierced me in the soft muscle between the two fingers. It went straight through. Ironically, no blood.

Fiona -
Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today, Vincent.

If you want to stay in touch with Vincent, here are his links:

Fiona Quinn's Newsletter Link, Sign up HERE

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.



  1. Fiona, great idea to post this interview. Can you go a step further and find an expert on travelling through Europe?

    1. I know a few - did you have specific questions that have come up in your writing?