As smuggling increases, a new reality show on the front lines at J.F.K.

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Agents gather on 'To Catch a Smuggler.' (National Geographic Television)
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Jed Lipinski

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“People smuggle in things in just about any way you can imagine,” Jerry Becker said.

“They found a delicate folk art curio layered with hashish, and an elaborate photo album with heroin stuffed into its binding. The idea is to overwhelm the system: the more stuff you send, the more likely it is that some of it’ll make it through.”

Becker was speaking about the new reality-TV show he executive produces for the National Geographic Channel, “To Catch a Smuggler,” which premiered Monday night at 9. Also Monday the New York Post reported that the number of people trying to smuggle drugs into the United States through John F. Kennedy International Airport is rising, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent. (Murdoch’s News Corp. owns the National Geographic Channel, but never mind.)

Between 2008 and 2011, the rate of annual smuggling arrests at the airport rose 19.8 percent, the agent said. He added that, although customs officials have better training and technology these days, the main reason for the increase was an uptick in people “attempting to skirt the laws of the United States.”

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“To Catch a Smuggler,” based on a one-hour special that aired last year, follows officers from the C.B.P. and agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) as they identify, search, interrogate and occasionally arrest those suspected of smuggling drugs and other contraband into the country through J.F.K. The five-part series was filmed in 2011 over the course of six weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Becker said the increased airport traffic during the holidays tends to increase the number of smuggling attempts.

The premise makes for some riveting television. In the first episode, “Courier to Kingpin,” a K-9 rips open a bag containing three bricks of crystal meth; a nervous man from Guyana is caught trying to smuggle four kilos of pure cocaine inside his carry-on; and a Dominican teenager gets his stomach X-rayed on the suspicion that he’s swallowed pellets filled with liquid heroin. (The results are negative, and the teen, with no money or luggage and only a T-shirt on his back on a frigid winter night, is released.)

Drugs, of course, are only one form of contraband people try to transport into the U.S. During the filming, Becker said, agents discovered a set of vampire bats they traced to a purchaser on eBay, as well as over a million dollars in counterfeit money orders. Still, drugs involve the greatest degree of smuggler creativity. And it is the job of customs agents to adapt to these new techniques as they arise.

“Smuggling drugs internally has been popular for a while,” said Becker, referring to the method, dramatized in the 2004 film Maria Full of Grace, of drug “mules” swallowing pellets of cocaine or heroin in powder form. “One of the newest methods is the use of liquid heroin, which under an x-ray looks like part of the human body. But now ICE agents know how to decipher what liquid heroin looks like in an X-ray.”

The access the filmmakers receive to J.F.K.’s interrogation rooms seems unprecedented, and hard to believe even 11 years after 9/11. Becker said the National Geographic brand helped convince J.F.K.’s higher-ups to approve the concept.

As part of the deal, the cameramen were required to leave the room whenever a suspect or an agent requested it. They were also required to get signed release forms from each suspect before using his or her image on TV—something that happened surprisingly often.

“The number of people I’ve seen in highly embarrassing situations sign releases sometimes boggles my mind,” Becker said.

The faces of suspects under arrest remain blurred, but this doesn’t detract from the drama of show. When supervisory officer Chris Elias slices into the Guyanan man’s luggage, you’re left to imagine the man’s horrified expression.

“I didn’t know that was in there!” he says. “I swear to God!”

Afterward, in the show’s form of a confessional, supervisory officer Joe Finn tells the camera: “He acted shocked when we told him what was in the bag. But he ain’t winning no Academy Awards, I can tell you that.”

The C.B.P. officers seem to like the camera’s attention as much as they enjoy the high stakes of their job. “You never know who it’s going to be,” officer Elias says of identifying potential smugglers. “It’s always an adrenaline rush.”

It’s a different story for the employees of J.F.K.’s mailroom. 700,000 packages come through the airport every day. And as a pale, tired-looking mail clerk tells the camera, every single one is screened for contraband.

Whether a reality show that details the methods C.B.P. and I.C.E. agents use to curtail smuggling will discourage potential smugglers or incite them to seek more elaborate means is unclear. But the next episode, "Cavity Courier," in which a Jamaican man is found to have $60,000 worth of cocaine in his shoes, looks pretty good.

All photos courtesy National Geographic Television.