Drug Traffickers Roll Along I-40
The police dog circles the car stopped on the shoulder of Interstate 40 just outside the city. It sniffs, pauses and then leaps toward the passenger door, clawing up the side before slipping in through the window.
Barry, a Belgian Malinois, wags his tail and scratches the back seat, alerting the officers that he smells something.
The officers find $97,434 in a suitcase and the driver’s wallet -- and a compartment hidden beneath the floor of the trunk.
The driver, a Georgia man originally pulled over for tailgating, is arrested on suspicion of money laundering. The car is seized by officers who say they believe that the money will be used to buy drugs, with the specially constructed compartment used to smuggle them.
Variations on this scene play out regularly on Interstate 40 in northern Arizona, which has become one of the country’s main corridors for transporting cocaine and marijuana smuggled from Mexico, according to authorities.
I-40 begins in Barstow and enters Arizona near Kingman. It traverses the desert and later pine forests as it approaches Flagstaff. The forest disappears as the road heads toward New Mexico. The interstate ends in Wilmington, N.C.
On Nov. 25, Arizona Department of Public Safety officers stopped a driver who had 35 pounds of cocaine near Flagstaff, spokesman Frank Valenzuela said. In October, investigators seized 160 pounds of marijuana and 5 kilograms of cocaine along the same interstate near Kingman.
The southern part of the state is perhaps more widely known for being a transit point for drugs because of its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border.
But northern Arizona can be just as active. For example, the public safety department’s K-9 unit made more drug-related busts in that region from January through early December than in the south, Valenzuela said.
Authorities concede that drug dealers who use Arizona as a gateway to get their products from Mexico into the United States are increasing the amount of highway crime, clogging up the courts and costing residents money and officers time.
The reason: I-40 has several features that make it attractive to drug traffickers. The highway, which is about 6 1/2 hours north of the border, doesn’t have Border Patrol checkpoints like those that pepper highways farther south, including Interstate 10.
“Drug smugglers are human too and like to follow the path of least resistance,” said Jim Molesa, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman.
The highway also provides a straight shot between the West Coast and the South, and it connects to interstates leading to the Midwest, the destination for many of the drugs coming through the area.
Most of Interstate 40’s drug traffic from Mexico comes through the border communities of Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Ariz., said Steve Volden, a public safety department spokesman.
But traffic also comes from California, where it enters from Tijuana, Mexico, and gets to I-40 via San Diego or Los Angeles. The Arizona traffic heads north through Tucson and Phoenix.
These drugs are mainly taken to Columbus, Ohio; Chicago, New York, as well as cities in Massachusetts, Indiana and Missouri.
Although the Midwest is one of the main markets for drugs passing through Flagstaff, the traffickers are from throughout the country. And their ages and lifestyles vary.
The Department of Public Safety has arrested an 82-year-old man, a 67-year-old English nurse from San Diego, as well as doctors, attorneys and firefighters.
Rent-a-families are common too, said Casey Kasun, a public safety officer. Drivers have passengers pretend to be spouses and children while they move the drugs.
“Greed -- it attacks all walks of life,” said Sgt. Jeff Brownlee, who oversees the department’s K-9 officers in Flagstaff.
When the traffickers are caught, the counties where they are arrested bear the financial burden.
“We take a little beating here because we are a small community and we don’t have the resources that bigger counties have for similar problems,” said Fred Newton, Coconino County’s presiding judge.
County officials won’t have to deal with the case of the man caught recently with the large amount of money and the hidden compartment in his car. Because of its magnitude, the case is being filed through the U.S. Attorney’s office, which is expected to charge the driver with money laundering, according to the Department of Public Safety.
When the man was taken to the department’s crime lab, he watched as officers pried off the bumper of his car. He was released after officers counted the bundles of money from his suitcase and the cash found in his pocket.
Arresting one alleged drug trafficker doesn’t offer much relief. For every person arrested, officers said, another will appear.
“The drug trade is very entrepreneurial,” Coconino County attorney Terry Hance said. “It probably will always remain there as long as there is a market.”