Post-9/11 security steps scaring off traffickers
Drug-related arrests at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport are down sharply since 9/11, when tighter security began catching drug users and traffickers nationwide.
Arrests at the Hebron airport skyrocketed immediately after 9/11 with the introduction of new security measures. As word got out among smugglers, arrests fell from 66 in 2001 to just three last year.
The amount of drugs and cash seized in those arrests also has fallen, in some cases by 90 percent or more.
Law enforcement officials say hand searches of bags, random checks of passengers and a variety of other steps intended to stop terrorists have scared off drug traffickers who once relied on the airlines.
Federal authorities have seen a similar decline in arrests across the country as the nation's airports clamped down after 9/11.
"There's really no place to hide the bulk amounts of drugs that used to go through here," said Kevin Murphy, the airport's police chief.
"The drug runners don't want to get caught."
But Murphy and others say the new reluctance to use airlines doesn't mean the flow of drugs has ended. More likely, they say, traffickers have turned to new methods of transporting their product.
Those methods include the interstate highway system, trains and express airfreight, which allows them to move drugs quickly by air without the risk of personal searches and arrests.
"It's like you put your finger in the dike to stop the leak and it pops out somewhere else," said Gary Oetjen, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Kentucky and southern Ohio.
"I'm sure it's still coming through."
As drug traffickers have adjusted to post-9/11 security, so have the federal and local authorities whose job it is to stop them.
Airport police reduced the number of officers assigned to a DEA task force from three to one, and the DEA has moved that task force from the airport to Cincinnati. The only drug-sniffing dog attached to that unit died earlier this year and has not yet been replaced.
Murphy said he eventually will bring in a new dog, but he doesn't expect the task force to return to the airport anytime soon.
He said it's simply not needed when airport police and security personnel search bags and many passengers before every flight.
"We're still keeping vigilant," Murphy said. "We're just doing that as a police function, not as a task force."
Oetjen said moving the task force out of the airport makes sense because traffickers have shifted their focus from the airlines. National statistics are limited, but they suggest the trend stretches beyond Cincinnati and the Midwest.
Federal courts saw a 20 percent jump in cases related to aircraft violations following 9/11 and customs officials made record seizures of Ecstasy pills. Those numbers then fell in the four years since the initial boost in security, which included the federal takeover of the airport passenger screening process.
For law enforcement officials, the crackdown at airports is a good-news, bad-news proposition: They're glad to see fewer drugs on passenger planes but are struggling to keep up with traffickers.
It's a back-and-forth battle that has been waged for decades between drug traffickers and law enforcement, and it has become more intense in the wake of 9/11.
On the Mexican border, for example, heightened security initially led to more arrests and marijuana seizures. Now, however, some drug cartels are avoiding the border altogether by planting marijuana crops on U.S. soil, mostly in California, according to California narcotics officials.
Law enforcement must make similar adjustments here, as traffickers look for alternatives to the airports.
"That's always been the trend," Murphy said. "We always have to find what the next avenue of transporting might be."
The leaders of more than 80 law enforcement agencies in the I-75 corridor met last month to compare notes and talk about the new challenges. They agreed more drugs are moving on the interstates and especially on I-75, a major conduit from Miami to Detroit.
"We're seeing more cases where they've gone back to transporting it over the highway," said Fred Alverson, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Greg Lockhart. "Logic would tell you that if you increase security at one place - the airport - shippers will look to other ways to get it through."
A national issue
Police and federal agents are trying to combat the trend with a greater presence on the highways and closer scrutiny of trucks, rental cars and overnight packages. Investigations now increasingly target those methods of transportation.
Sometimes, authorities get an assist from technology, such as global positioning satellites that can be used to track suspicious airfreight packages.
And it's not only drugs they're finding: Counterfeit money and fraudulent documents also are moving with increasing frequency via overnight packages.
"I think it's a national issue," said Tim Willard, who runs operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Cincinnati. "People are exploiting the overnight package system, so we've targeted that now."
Despite the shift in focus, neither drug traffickers nor law enforcement is giving up on passenger airlines. Air travel still is the quickest way to transport drugs.
Willard said customs officials continue to closely watch international flights, particularly those from drug-producing countries. He said a few recent drug busts suggest traffickers still are willing to test airport security.
But Oetjen said there is little doubt they are testing it less than they used to.
"After 9/11, we thought security was going to have an impact, but not as much as it has," Oetjen said. "Before, they felt safe on the airways. Now I guess they don't."
Airport drug flow slows
Drug-related arrests and drug and cash seizures at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport:
CASH SEIZED IN DRUG CASES
AMOUNT OF DRUGS SEIZED
Year Heroin Cocaine Crack cocaine Marijuana
2000 4.9 kilos 20.1 kilos 1.26 kilos 520.4 lbs.
2001 2.7 kilos 3.7 kilos 337 grams 355.4 lbs.
2002 0 3.3 kilos 80 grams 5.4 lbs.
2003 59 grams 2.7 kilos 0 64.5 lbs.
2004 4.5 grams 2 kilos 0 95.3 lbs.
Source: Airport police
The Enquirer/Mike Nyerges
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