Pubdate: Sat, 30 Mar 2002
Source: Oakland Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2002 ANG Newspapers
Author: Justin Jouvenal


M-16 toting troops, sniffer dogs and extra security since Sept. 11 may have
scared drug traffickers away from Bay Area airports, cutting to a trickle
illicit smuggling operations, law enforcement officials say.

Since the terrorist attacks, drug seizures have plummeted to unprecedented
levels at San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose airports, while the number of
drug arrests is sharply down. 

"We're seizing grams instead of pounds," said Richard Meyer, a special agent
with the Drug Enforcement Administration. "Traffickers aren't dumb.
Obviously they've seen security and shifted their operations." 

Airport smuggling is usually done by "drug mules," people paid hundreds or
thousands of dollars by traffickers to ferry shipments from city to city or
country to country, officials say. 

The mules stash marijuanua blocks of up to 60 pounds in suitcases. Heroin or
cocaine are often strapped around their bodies, hidden in pouches in private
parts or shoes, or ingested in wax pills then later expelled. 

New airport security measures -- from scanning all checked bags to shoe
inspections -- make these smuggling methods much more dicey, Meyer said. The
increasing risk is reflected in the lack of drug seizures and arrests. 

DEA agents have not found any shipments of heroin at Bay Area airports since
Sept. 11, Meyer said. Cocaine seizures are off 50 percent or more, and
agents have only uncovered small amounts of marijuana and methamphetamine. 

In an average year, agents recover roughly six pounds of heroin and
methamphetamine, about two pounds of cocaine and several hundred pounds of

Drug trafficking arrests at San Francisco International have remained
steady, while arrests at Mineta-San Jose are off 57 percent and arrests at
Oakland have dropped 80 percent. 

DEA officials have refused to release hard numbers for drugs seized or
arrests made, saying it could interfere with ongoing investigations. 

DEA and U.S. Customs Service officials say the drop in airport smuggling has
not affected street supplies much. The three airports account for only a
small fraction of the drugs flowing into the Bay area. 

"The ground zero for drug trafficking is the Mexican border," said Mike
Fleming, spokesman for U.S. Customs in Los Angeles. 

At the border, cocaine seizures doubled and heroin seizures increased
twentyfold between October and December over the same period in 2000. 

Fleming attributes the increase to the vigilance of U.S. Customs agents, who
have been on "code red" alert since Sept. 11. 

"The more you look, the more you find," he said. 

It's not clear whether the decrease in airport trafficking in the Bay area
is related to the increased seizures at the Mexican border or whether drug
smugglers are finding other ways to sneak drugs into the Bay Area. 

The decline has left drug-sniffing dogs, such as SFO's Elway, with little
reward for their hard work, while airport drug enforcement task forces have
increasingly turned their attention to nonairport stings. 

One DEA agent, who asked not to be identified, said the respite in
trafficking will likely only be temporary. 

"After the Gulf War, we also saw a short-lived decline in trafficking," he
said. "Distributing drugs and drug money by air is so efficient, I'm sure we
will see it increase again."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Doc-Hawk