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PORTLAND, Ore. -- The sequence has to be perfect. Turn the radio on, tap the brakes, hit the wipers and then: click, a latch releases.
The latch opens a lock box hidden beneath the passenger seat of an older-model Honda Accord. Smugglers use the secret compartment to hide drugs and cash.
“Some are very sophisticated concealed traps,” explained Cam Strahm, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Portland office.
Hidden compartments are an example of the techniques used by drug traffickers to smuggle an increasing amount of methamphetamine from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest.
In 2016, police confiscated 959 pounds of methamphetamine on Oregon’s highways -- nearly six times the quantity seized in 2010, according to the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) Program.
“There is certainly more of it and there’s an appetite for it in the community, otherwise they wouldn’t be bringing it to Oregon,” said Strahm.
Most of the methamphetamine available in Oregon, Washington and Idaho is produced in clandestine labs in Mexico, according to the DEA. It is smuggled across the southwestern border and then shipped north along the Interstate 5 corridor.
I-5 has become a pipeline for methamphetamine.
“It’s a main artery between Mexico and Canada,” explained Trooper Adam Miller of Oregon State Police. “It is the fastest route from A to B.”
Map shows how meth moves in and out of the Northwest
Meth: Our Foreign Import
A decade ago, police cracked down on methamphetamine by shutting down labs and restricting sales of a key ingredient, pseudoephedrine. Oregon law, enacted in 2006, required a prescription to purchase the nasal and sinus congestion medication. The law reduced local meth production, but opened up the market to foreign imports.
“We solved a problem. We absolutely solved a problem,” said Strahm. “Now, we have a different problem.”
Mexican drug cartels have seized control of the methamphetamine black market, according to the DEA. The 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment reported three Mexican transnational criminal organizations had the greatest drug trafficking impact in Oregon. The Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nuevea Ganeracion-Los Cunis controlled the Portland area, while the Los Caballenos Templarios controlled the Eugene area.
These cartels produce large quantities of meth in labs in Mexico, then smuggle the drugs across the southwestern border.
A DEA map shows drug cartel presence in the U.S.
Most methamphetamine bound for the Pacific Northwest is shipped by vehicle along I-5. The drugs are smuggled north. Then, the smugglers return south with the proceeds, large amounts of cash.
“It’s a big freeway. There’s a lot of traffic and it moves pretty fast,” said Chris Gibson, executive director of Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. “It is pretty easy to blend in.”
It is not uncommon for traffickers to change routes to avoid interdiction efforts.
Police have intercepted drug shipments on highways throughout the state of Oregon. In January 2014, police made the largest seizure in Oregon’s history after a semi-truck crashed on Highway 97 in Sherman County. Investigators seized 190 pounds of methamphetamine, 17 pounds of cocaine and 11 pounds of heroin hidden in the truck's cargo.
“They may branch off in different places but it all eventually comes back to the I-5 corridor,” said Gibson.
Meth seizures in Oregon have risen sharply over the last decade
Smugglers try to avoid detection by changing the days they drive shipments along the interstate and the time of day. They also make an effort to obey traffic laws.
“They typically don’t go too much over the speed limit, if at all,” said Trooper Miller.
Typically, the smugglers use nondescript vehicles, so as not to stand out.
“We do find some of the common vehicles used are Honda Accords, Toyota minivans, Honda minivans, Toyota Camrys -- very common cars that blend in with the general public,” explained Miller.
For police, finding big shipments of meth isn’t easy. Interdiction often requires patience. At every traffic stop, troopers are looking for unusual driver behavior or questionable vehicle records.
On Aug. 11, 2017, Oregon State Police pulled over a 2011 Nissan for a traffic violation. During the stop, troopers found 45 pounds of methamphetamine.
“If they have a large amount of drugs in the car, they are always going north,” explained trooper Miller. “If they have a large amount of cash in the car, they are always going south.”
Published Oct. 30, 2017