Behind the scenes with U.S. Customs & Border Protection at the Port of Charleston

Customs & Border Patrol (WCIV)

Every week on Concord Street in downtown Charleston, tourists are coming and going from the cruise ship terminal. It’s their beginning and ending destination. The duties of keeping them safe as possible are the responsibility of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, also known CBP.

Canine enforcement officer Erik Larsen and his partner Hero are among the tools that are used. Every year, more than 216,000 people pass through the terminal. Each of them brings luggage and suitcases. It’s up to Hero to sniff them for drugs.

"A hundred percent of the travelers and their cargo that comes into the united states is assessed in some way for risk," explained Brett Mueller, a supervisory officer, professionalism service manager, and public affairs liaison for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"When you see that many bags, you get a pretty good sense of what poses low risk and the things that stand out," he said.

For security reasons, Mueller won't reveal what things stand out. But he says protecting these people and their property is a prime example of border security on Charleston Harbor.

"This is kind of a last line of defense here at the cruise ship terminal. We've already got a pretty good idea of who's coming to us and presenting themselves here today," Mueller said.

Part of that defense includes careful screening of the Carnival Ecstacy and the passengers who enter and exit the terminal.

"We're also checking what they brought back into the united states with them to make sure that nothing dangerous or nothing that duty needs to be paid on is coming through our borders," Mueller said.

Illegal guns, drugs, and other potentially deadly souvenirs are stopped before seeing the streets of Charleston. It's a methodical process to ensure the safety of those who travel at sea and the country they return to.

"Ultimately it’s all about protecting the United States and our communities," he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is also one of the agencies responsible for protecting port terminals.

South Carolina ports are a driving force in the state's economic engine. Last month, the South Carolina Ports Authority reported its strongest October on record.

Protecting the ports from terrorism is the task of CBP, which often times works behind the scenes. ABC News 4 took a rare look at what it does, and how it keeps the state and national economy running safely.

One of the roads to international commerce leads to the Wando welch Port Terminal. Securing and inspecting more than 2 million containers is the job of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Vehicle and container inspection systems scan steel boxes filled with cargo. They can detect dangerous amounts of radiation intended for sinister purposes.

Officers also use hand held rad-seekers to examine tractor trailers before they hit the road.

"Similar to how you go to the doctor and get an x-ray of your chest, you can think of it as the same way with our equipment. So you don't necessarily have to open the container in order to see what's inside," explained Marecus Matthews, a supervisory officer for CBP.

"We're trying to keep bad things and bad people out of the country," said Robert Fencel, area port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

He showed how each unit goes through radiation screening. It’s one of the steps in anti-terrorism efforts.

"Every one of these containers we want to make sure that everything in there is safe. We want to make sure that what is in there is what the company said it is. We want to make sure if it’s a good product its safe for consumption," he said.

When there are concerns about shipments, officers open the doors so agricultural specialists can examine the contents.

Onions from Colombia and Peru could carry harmful insects that might spread in the U.S.. If more research is needed, products are sent to the Centralized Examination Station in North Charleston.

At a special lab, agricultural specialists carefully study microscopic bugs.

"This Asian gypsy moth has a veracious appetite," said CBP supervisory officer Dean Duval.

They also check boxes bound for U.S. stores.

"Making sure we don't find anything that we're not supposed to," said CBP agricultural specialist Robyn Velasquez.

Dangerous bugs, illegal drugs, or counterfeit items can be found in shipments. Even wooden shipping crates are vulnerable.

"A lot of things can be treated here if we find it. But if you find a wood-boring pest inside the wood its automatic re-export," explained Julie Day, a CBP agricultural specialist.

It’s a rare look at the largest law enforcement agency in the federal government. And it has a big impact on the Lowcountry and the world.

"We're not just part of the local community, we're part of a global community,” said Fencel.

CBP seizes counterfeit goods coming into the port. Occasionally some of those items make it into the marketplace. If you suspect an item might be a cheap knock-off of an authentic product, Report it to CBP’s partner agency, the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center. The website is

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off