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Hunting Drug Smugglers On US Highways


Aired 5/18/11

Federal officials cannot stop all of the illicit drugs entering the country. So they teamed up with local cops to target vehicles smuggling drugs on highways across the southwest and beyond.

Special Feature The Drug War At Home

This is one installment in a 13-part series of multimedia stories by Fronteras: The Changing America Desk that investigates our role in the illegal narcotics trade.

A map of counties in Nevada and the southwest identified as High Intensity Dr...
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Above: A map of counties in Nevada and the southwest identified as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA).

Lt. Lazaro Chavez oversees a team that intercepts drugs smuggled from Mexico and the money heading back to the cartels. But Chavez isn’t anywhere near the border. He works 300 miles away, for the Las Vegas Metro Police Department.

“This is the battleground for us,” Chavez said. “Right here, Interstate 15.”

I-15 starts in San Diego, cuts through the Mojave desert, heads into Las Vegas, and onto Salt Lake City, where it turns due north.

The drugs that made it across the southern border are usually divided up in stash houses in cities like Phoenix and San Diego. They are probably heading to cities further north and in the Midwest.

Chavez and his team are also in charge of monitoring U.S. Highway 95 from Phoenix, the airport, trains and buses. But he says most of the action is on I-15.

“This is the road that the cartels have identified as their route,” Chavez said, standing next to the busy freeway. “And we have identified it as our area to really fight this battle.”

They fight this battle with some help from the federal government: $3 million annually for Nevada alone. Southern Nevada is one of 28 areas identified across the country as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, known as HIDTA for short.

HIDTA Drug Seizures In Region.
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Above: HIDTA Drug Seizures In Region.

They essentially are chasing down packages that managed to slip past border inspection – cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and Mexican black tar heroin. But by the time the drugs get to Chavez’s stretch of I-15, the loads have usually been divided once and the smugglers can blend in with the 250 million cars on America’s highways.

Chavez and his team drive with police radios, but their cars are unmarked. That way, they can observe other drivers unnoticed.

“It is almost like a big chess game. The drug dealers want to outsmart the police so they can get their product...onto the streets,” Chavez said. “So we figure out, how are they doing it today? Are they using buses? Maybe they're using hidden compartments inside cars.”

HIDTA Marijuana Seizures In Region.
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Above: HIDTA Marijuana Seizures In Region.

Chavez said it’s mostly intelligence that guides his team to pull over certain cars. They also notice things like two cars in a caravan. One could be the security for the other one, which is carrying the drugs. And they know which makes and models traffickers have used before. But Chavez won’t elaborate much more about his strategy.

“The last thing I want to do is give up some of our intelligence, some of our tools, so the bad guy wins,” he said.

The lieutenant has colleagues who do similar work all across the nation. About 400 officers who specialize in highway drug enforcement gathered in Las Vegas in early May.

They attended sessions with titles like: “Bulk Currency” and “Mexican Drug Cartels”. One priority that they talk about at these conferences is sharing intelligence between agencies.

HIDTA Cash Seizures In Region.
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Above: HIDTA Cash Seizures In Region.

“A trooper making a stop in Las Vegas can put a message to this entire community within one hour,” said Jack Killorin, head of HIDTA’s Department of Highway Enforcement.

And what would that message say?

“We just apprehended a driver who is cooperating. He told us there is another vehicle transporting drugs up ahead,” Killorin said. “It is a Cadillac Escalade, it has got Texas license plates and they are heading to Chicago, Illinois. And those troopers will respond to look for that vehicle.”

While collaboration may be improving, other aspects of the job may be getting tougher.

It’s becoming less common for those arrested drivers to cooperate and become informants, some authorities said. That may be a direct result of the Mexican cartels’ brutal enforcement strategies.

“They are not willing to talk because they are afraid of the cartels,” said Kent Bitsko, who directs Nevada’s HIDTA program. “They are a lot more afraid of what will happen to them if they cross the cartels than what will happen to them if they go to prison here.”

Those informants and sources of intelligence are critical to finding the cars with drugs.

“If you are not already being watched by law enforcement, the risk that you as the courier with the drugs will be pulled over is the (same) risk of anybody else being pulled over,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who studies drug markets. “Which is to say, not very high. It really is needle in a haystack stuff.”

Back on the highway, Lt. Chavez shares his team’s stats from last year. They seized $2 million dollars in cash, more than 1,300 pounds of marijuana and about 100 pounds of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin combined.

But that is a small fraction of the drugs a metropolitan area the size of Las Vegas is likely to consume in a year.

“You cannot help but to take it a little bit personal when you hear of search warrants being done in the city where you find 50 pounds or 100 pounds of methamphetamine,” Chavez said. “And you know that there is only one way it could have gotten here.”

And that is on the highway, probably I-15.

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Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | May 18, 2011 at 9:19 a.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

Why do our Supreme Court Justices find it so complicated to re-define the 2nd Ammendment? This is the ammendment stating we have the right to bear arms. In that ammendment I believe there is clear reference to this due to the British trying to disarm the Colonials. That was over 200 years ago.

Today I think many of us believe in the right to bear arms, but our gunmakers based in the U.S. are hiding behind the ammendment and selling weapons to the drug cartel, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups, thus fueling war. It's become a business for them.

The fight against drugs means we have to stop arming our enemies and criminals. Thus, the 2nd Ammendment needs to be ammended. How many more of us have to die before that comes to pass?

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Avatar for user 'Turbosupplier'

Turbosupplier | November 1, 2012 at 4:36 p.m. ― 4 years, 4 months ago

How about legalize the drug marijuana and eliminate 99% of the drugs crossing the border as we will then be allowed to grow it in the us and keep the profits here not over in Mexico. If we allow the price of pot to crash to say 50$ a ounce which is completely feasible there will be little to any profit in transporting it into the US. This plant has been proven to not cause any harm and has even been shown to treat hundreds of health related complications along with being safer than alcohol. The drug war is an utter failure and marijuana is the only thing keeping it alive. Less than 1 in 100 pot users use cocaine and less than that use heroin. How about the taxes collected on the marijuana are used to provide assistance to drug rehabilitation clinics for the hard drug users. Stop the crime stop the gangs stop the violence stop the money flowing out stop the stupidity that Nixon signed into law to stop the war protest. Marijuana was given to the people by God to use and save the world, I would imagine within 10 yrs of legalization we will see a economic boom that would revitalize this world to a whole new level. People get it now its time for the government to stop taking the corporate payments from the pharma, tobacco, alcohol, and prison lobbyists. Thanks for reading this now go do your research and find out whats really going on.

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